The EU’s new 'smart borders' regime infringes fundamental rights, undermines privacy while creating profits for Europe’s defence contractors.
Borderline, The EU's New Border Surveillance Initiatives
Assessing the Costs and Fundamental Rights Implications of EUROSUR and the "Smart Borders" Proposals
A study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation
Written by Dr. Ben Hayes & Mathias Vermeulen
Preface of the report by Barbara Unmüßig, President Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, & Ska Keller, Member of the European Parliament
The upheavals in North Africa have lead to a short-term rise of refugees to Europe, yet, demonstrably, there has been no wave of refugees heading for Europe. By far most refugees have found shelter in neighbouring Arab countries. Nevertheless, in June 2011, the EU’s heads of state precipitately adopted EU Council Conclusions with far-reaching consequences, one that will result in new border policies “protecting” the Union against migration. In addition to new rules and the re- introduction of border controls within the Schengen Area, the heads of state also insisted on upgrading the EU’s external borders using state-of-art surveillance technology, thus turning the EU into an electronic fortress.
The Conclusions passed by the representatives of EU governments aims to quickly put into place the European surveillance system EUROSUR. This is meant to enhance co-operation between Europe’s border control agencies and promote the surveillance of the EU’s external borders by FRONTEX, the Union’s agency for the protection of its external borders, using state-of-the-art surveillance technologies. To achieve this, there are even plans to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the Mediterranean and the coasts of North Africa. Such high-tech missions have the aim to spot and stop refugee vessels even before they reach Europe’s borders. A EUROSUR bill has been drafted and is presently being discussed in the European Council and in the European Parliament. Member states also want to introduce so-called “smart borders” to achieve total control over all cross-border movements. Following the US model, the plan is to introduce a massive database that will store information, including fingerprints, of all non-EU citizens leaving or entering the Union. The aim is to identify so-called “over-stayers,” that is, third-country nationals who have overstayed their permission to stay. In the United States, a similar system has been a failure and nationwide exit checks were never introduced. Still, the EU’s heads of state and its government representatives persist – whatever the cost (the EU Commission estimates it will be up to €1.1 billion). Under pressure from member states, it is trying to introduce the smart borders bill during the summer of 2012.
EUROSUR and “smart borders” represent the EU’s cynical response to the Arab Spring. Both are new forms of European border controls – new external border protection policies to shut down the influx of refugees and migrants (supplemented by internal controls within the Schengen Area); to achieve this, the home secretaries of some countries are even willing to accept an infringement of fundamental rights. The present study by Ben Hayes and Mathias Vermeulen demonstrates that EUROSUR fosters EU policies that undermine the rights to asylum and protection. For some time, FRONTEX has been criticised for its “push back” operations during which refugee vessels are being intercepted and escorted back to their ports of origin. In February 2012, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for carrying out such operations, arguing that Italian border guards had returned all refugees found on an intercepted vessel back to Libya – including those with a right to asylum and international protection. As envisioned by EUROSUR, the surveillance of the Mediterranean using UAVs, satellites, and shipboard monitoring systems will make it much easier to spot such vessels. It is to be feared, that co-operation with third countries, especially in North Africa, as envisioned as part of EUROSUR, will lead to an increase of “push back” operations.
Nevertheless, the EU’s announcement of EUROSUR sounds upbeat: The planned surveillance of the Mediterranean, we are being told, using UAVs, satellites, and shipboard monitoring systems, will aid in the rescue of refugees shipwrecked on the open seas. The present study reveals to what extent such statements cover up a lack of substance. Maritime rescue services are not part of EUROSUR and border guards do not share information with them, however vital this may be. Only just recently, the Council of Europe issued a report on the death of 63 migrants that starved and perished on an unseaworthy vessel, concluding that the key problem had not been to locate the vessel but ill-defined responsibilities within Europe. No one came to the aid of the refugees – and that in spite of the fact that the vessel’s position had been known.
In reaction to the Arab Spring, EU member countries are not only promoting a total surveillance of the Mediterranean, they are also pushing for an electronic upgrading of border controls. This means that ordinary travellers, too, will come into the focus of border guards in what one may well call a data juggernaut. Through its “smart borders” programme the EU would create one of the world’s largest biometric databases – not with the aim to fight terrorism or stem cross-border crime (even that would be a questionable endeavour), but solely in order to identify individuals that have overstayed their permission to stay.
One of the fundamental findings of the study is that the EU’s new border regime would not only infringe fundamental rights, it would also, in spite of its questionable benefits, cost billions – and that against the background of pervasive budget cuts and austerity measures. Above all, this would profit Europe’s defence contractors, as they would receive EU funding for “smart gates,” UAVs, and other surveillance technologies. The technological upgrading of the EU’s external borders will obviously open up new markets to European security and armament companies. What we witness is a convergence of business interests and the aims of political hardliners who view migration as a threat to the EU’s homeland security.
The EU’s new border control programmes not only represent a novel technological upgrade, they also show that the EU is unable to deal with migration and refugees. Of the 500,000 refugees fleeing the turmoil in North Africa, less than 5% ended up in Europe. Rather, the problem is that most refugees are concentrated in only a very few places. It is not that the EU is overtaxed by the problem; it is local structures on Lampedusa, in Greece’s Evros region, and on Malta that have to bear the brunt of the burden. This can hardly be resolved by labelling migration as a novel threat and using military surveillance technology to seal borders. For years, instead of receiving refugees, the German government along with other EU countries has blocked a review of the Dublin Regulation in the European Council. For the foreseeable future, refugees and migrants are to remain in the countries that are their first point of entry into the Union.
Within the EU, the hostile stance against migrants has reached levels that threaten the rescue of shipwrecked refugees. During FRONTEX operations, shipwrecked refugees will not be brought to the nearest port – although this is what international law stipulates – instead they will be landed in a port of the member country that is in charge of the operation. This reflects a “nimby” attitude – not in my backyard. This is precisely the reason for the lack of responsibility in European maritime rescue operations pointed out by the Council of Europe. As long as member states are unwilling to show more solidarity and greater humanity, EUROSUR will do nothing to change the status quo.
The way forward would be to introduce improved, Europe-wide standards for the granting of asylum. The relevant EU guidelines are presently under review, albeit with the proviso that the cost of new regulations may not exceed the cost of those in place – and that they may not cause a relative rise in the number of asylum requests. In a rather cynical move, the EU’s heads of government introduced this proviso in exactly the same resolution that calls for the rapid introduction of new surveillance measures costing billions. Correspondingly, the budget of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) is small – only a ninth what goes towards FRONTEX.
Unable to tackle the root of the problem, the member states are upgrading the Union’s external borders. Such a highly parochial approach taken to a massive scale threatens some of the EU’s fundamental values – under the pretence that one’s own interests are at stake. Such an approach borders on the inhumane.