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People on the move
November 2017, This Week's Editor's Pick, Access Control & Identity Management, Integrated Solutions, IT infrastructure

Every year, Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency releases a risk analysis report. The latest 2017 publication discloses that, while Europe’s external border situation remains challenging, the numbers of detected illegal border crossings nearly halved within a year, from 2015’s all-time high of over a million.

Sanjay Dharwadker.
Sanjay Dharwadker.

This has been achieved in difficult times. All Frontex risk analysis publications bear a triangular arrow symbol with a dot at the centre. As they explain, metaphorically, the arrow represents the cyclical nature of risk analysis. The triangle is a symbol of ideal proportions and knowledge, reflecting the pursuit of factual exactness, truth and exhaustive analysis. The dot at the centre represents the intelligence factor and the focal point where information from diverse sources converge to be processed, systematised and shared as analytical products. This in a nutshell, is Frontex for you.

Of the 511 000 detections reported, roughly 382 000 arrived from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This was a significant decrease in comparison with 2015, however an overwhelming number of the newly-arrived migrants that arrived in the Central Mediterranean region claimed that they had used the services of smuggling networks to illegally enter the EU.

Also, the increasing number of vulnerable persons moving through the region, like Nigerian women, makes it very clear that effective detection of people trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour and other purposes remains a major challenge for the authorities.

For the fourth consecutive year, people claiming to be Syrian nationals (17%) represented the highest share of irregular migrants entering the EU, followed by Afghans (11%), and Iraqis (6%). The migration pressure from the African continent continues, mostly from Nigeria, Guinea, Cote d’Ivorie and Gambia.

False documentation

While the incidence of people trying to enter Europe with fraudulent travel documents has decreased, these are being increasingly used internally. In general, smuggling of migrants and document fraud have emerged as the key criminal activity linked to migration and continue to pose a security threat.

A key assessment is that there is an underlying threat of terrorism-related travel movements. This is mainly due to the fact that the Syrian conflict has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including EU citizens. At the beginning of 2017, the main jihadist organisations have experienced considerable military setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya and this might encourage some foreign fighters to return to their home countries, including EU member states. As some of them potentially pose a threat to internal security, the role of border authorities in monitoring their cross-border movements is becoming increasingly important.

What enables security organisations to achieve all this and ready themselves for timely action?

Some of this has been studied and analysed by researchers like Dennis Broeders (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) and Huub Dijstelbloem (University of Amsterdam). As sociological studies, some of them are quite disturbing, as it clearly shows that the degree of surveillance is on the rise. However, governments are likely to defend themselves on grounds of security and threat perceptions. France and others have already borne the brunt of significant terrorist attacks in recent years.

Big data border control

Modern technologies enhance the capacities of governments to gather and process data, increase the variety and depth of governmental observation and monitoring, and thus big data analysis now finds a place in contemporary public policy making. Even though policy-makers often claim that technology merely does the same job faster and better, some say that technology also changes both the substance and the nature of policy. An important observation is that bigger datasets necessitate policy thinking in terms of risks and increasingly favours correlations over causalities. Thus, policy is increasingly defined in terms of risks of international terrorism, transnational crime as well as violations of immigration law and policy, which includes irregular border crossing and settlement, as well as multiple asylum claims among others.

A lot of effort is aimed at visualising, registering, mapping, monitoring and profiling mobile populations through surveillance of the green (land) and especially the blue (sea) borders of the EU. Some ask if this is altering the relationships between politics and technology and the main question is whether adding a thicker layer of information and data to policymaking, and the remarkable increase in speed and real-time exchange of data, changes the nature of the state’s capacity to intervene. Also, the nature of the border itself has changed drastically and is now ‘everywhere’ and ‘virtual’ and has changed into a ‘border security continuum’.

This is being achieved through data management, the calculation of risk factors as well as the global use of biometric databases, profiles and digital watch lists, that are able to link border control posts, embassies, consulates and field officers in refugee situations with and through the digital back offices of mobility monitoring and management.

Contrast this with the past, when migration officials primarily relied on their tacit knowledge – and taking people out of the queue for closer inspection – and a very limited watch-list for the direct surveillance of border flows. In contrast, the gathering and analysis of data and the application of new technologies in passports and visas (chips and biometrics, for example) have shifted attention in part to data flows rather than the actual moving bodies.

On the plus side, officials are thus able to monitor and manage overall flows of international travel rather than selected groups. It is widely recognised that the risks and problems that haunt policymakers today – international terrorism, illegal migration and transnational crime – are much more likely to be enveloped in this larger flow of human mobility. In general, for states the monitoring of international mobility aims to ‘filter out’ those that attempt to deliberately remain unseen or unidentified, and this includes terrorists, irregular migrants and criminals. But it also serves to locate, categorise and identify those that need to be protected and helped, such as refugees and internally displaced persons.

Data-based borders

Some of the successful examples of such initiatives include the UK that operates a National Border Targeting Centre. In the US the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is setting up a network of ‘data fusion centres’ that are primarily concerned with data flows connected to national security. The EU has in place coordinated initiatives such as Schengen Visa Information Systems (SIS and VIS), Eurodac (for asylum seekers), to be now supplemented with the Entry and Exit system (EES).

For EU, the basic data on its external and outermost borders are daunting: 27 member states are responsible for roughly 10 000 kilometres of green borders, 50 000 kilometres of blue borders and 1800 official ports of entry. Technologies deployed at the green borders include: heartbeat and mobile carbon dioxide detectors, fixed and mobile document examination systems, CCTV, night vision equipment, thermal cameras and movement detectors. At the blue borders of the Mediterranean new technologies of visualisation are set to play an even greater role, and these include: satellites, drones (UAVs) and the data mining of various sources of public and operational data.

Analysing all this includes three layers of data: the events layer including migratory flows, operational information layer showing what member states are doing, and an analysis layer to determine how risks are assessed and translated into operational responses. This is expected to trigger a ‘situational awareness’ and an accurate ‘situational picture’ for border guards to work with. For air travel, this is converging to the active use of the Passenger Name Record (PNR) and Advance Passenger Information (API) data exchange as the frontline mobility and migration surveillance systems and countries airlines are likely to be empowered to prevent passengers from boarding if analysed to pose a security threat.

Such pre-emptive governance of mobility through databases is organised around the logic of blacklisting, green-listing and grey-listing of the mobile populations heading towards the EU. Those who are blacklisted could thus be stopped well before they reach a territorial border, those who are green-listed are fast-tracked for easy border passage and those who are grey-listed are labelled ‘suspect’ and may require further scrutiny at the border, or preferably, before embarking on their journey.

In the past, authorities based their screening primarily on a traveller’s nationality but new sources of information allow them to focus more directly on individual and personal characteristics.

However, it needs to be seen if such approaches will provide the long sought-after and long-lasting solution of finding the right balance between security and convenience that international travel authorities as well as the global citizens yearn for.


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