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Smart borders

June 3, 2012

Researchers are criticizing the European Union's new concepts for border security as unnecessary overkill. A German study says that the plans are expensive and inefficient.

Police officers stand guard in a checkpoint near to the border of Spain and France
Spanien führt wieder Grenzkontrollen einImage: dapd

In future, "smart borders" are to protect the external borders of the European Union - against both illegal immigrants and criminals and terrorists.

The European Commission, which is developing the relevant draft laws, intends to deploy high tech to shore up the frontiers. It initiated several projects in 2008, under the auspices of the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR), aimed primarily at illegal immigration.

But now the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a research institute affiliated with Germany's Green Party, has commissioned a study on the subject, which has been published under the title "Borderline."

One of the authors is Ben Hayes of the British civil rights organization Statewatch. He says the European Commission's claim that EUROSUR will help save the lives of boat people on the Mediterranean is an obfuscation of its true intentions: "Nowhere in the plans does it say how the refugees should be saved or what should happen to them. Instead, so-called 'push-back operations' are used to keep all refugees away from the borders of Europe. "
Necessity and effectiveness unclear

The Commission says the introduction of smart border systems with biometric controls is primarily meant to detect so-called "overstayers," people who enter the EU legally, such as with a visa, but then remain illegally even after the visa expires. But the authors of the Borderline study question whether the benefits justify the huge expense. After all, some 100 million people cross the EU's borders to third countries each year. To capture each of them would require the creation of a database of unprecedented scale - a nightmare for those with privacy concerns.

Technically, the EUROSUR plans are extremely complex and ambitious - the scheme is meant to detect even the smallest boat moving towards Europe in the Mediterranean or the North Atlantic.

A border official watching several monitors
The EU plans to make huge investments in border surveillanceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This will involve new high-tech monitoring systems such as drones and satellites - but, according to Borderline, the EU failed to commission a technical or financial feasibility study from independent experts. "The only people who were asked if this can work technically were the companies that sell this security technology," said Hayes.


Hayes believes the decision to rely primarily on technology to deal with illegal immigration is down to constant effective lobbying of the security industry. "You do not have to be a mathematical genius to figure out that security and technology companies will earn a lot of money if smart border control systems are set up at every border crossing and airport in each of the 27 member states of the European Union," he said.
Although the European Commission launched the smart borders project in 2008, the European Parliament did not vote on it until 2012. The parliament was presented with a fait accompli, the authors of the study say.

Green Party MEP Ska Keller, who initiated the study, shares its fears. Formally, the parliament could still reject the project, but this would not be realistic after so much time and money has been invested. Perhaps improvements could be made in terms of privacy, Keller says: "If you build such large databases, as planned, then it raises desires very quickly."

Keller says she misses political objectivity in the entire debate on EU border security: "There's been no thinking about what the problem is and what an appropriate solution would be. We are being offered a high-tech solution for a problem that does not exist to this extent."

A boat full of illegal immigrants at Lampedusa, Italy
The Commission says the new system will save refugees' livesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Author: Rachel Gessat / sgb
Editor: Ben Knight