‘These solutions enable border agencies to assure smooth and seamless travel for genuine passengers while maintaining strong internal and external security; manage [sic] human rights and international agreements; and preventing criminal inflows in an efficient and highly cost-effective manner’ – Frédéric Trojani, president of the lobby group Secure Identity Alliance

Europe’s Mediterranean border is the most dangerous border in the world. Over 2,000 people have died trying to enter Europe since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic alone. This is one of the starkest reminders of the racism deeply embedded in the European project, where unity, prosperity and free movement for Europeans are founded on the violent exclusion and repression of others. 

The normalisation of the fact that thousands of overwhelmingly non-white migrants die every year attempting to enter Europe is not the result of indifference: it is a longstanding and deliberate strategy by European governments to minimise immigration from Global South countries. It is also a highly profitable and productive state of affairs for Europe’s ‘border-industrial complex’: the network of policymakers, lobbyists, arms dealers and tech companies who have invested substantial financial and political capital in exclusionary border policies, and reap the rewards of the vast sums invested in border militarisation and surveillance. These powerful economic interests constitute a major barrier to any attempt to reform Europe’s lethal border regime. 

Europe’s deadly border policies

It is a longstanding principle of international law that states are prohibited from deporting anyone to a country where they would face persecution in the sense of the 1951 Refugee Convention or other serious human rights violations such as torture. This non-refoulement principle still carries great legal and normative weight and openly ignoring it is not a realistic option for self-proclaimed liberal democracies. Instead, since the 1980s, wealthy Global North countries have neatly sidestepped it by going to inordinate lengths to ensure would-be asylum seekers cannot reach their territory in the first place. Carrier sanctions and external border controls make it impossible to officially travel from Global South to Global North countries without visas that are only available to the wealthiest or to holders of the most privileged passports. The legal routes to asylum that politicians like to hold up as the correct alternative to unauthorised entry are functionally non-existent. There is no way the millions waiting in refugee camps can apply for, or even predict the distribution of, the tiny number of resettlement places arbitrarily awarded by Global North states. 

Nevertheless, many of the migrants Europe deems undesirable find unofficial routes to get there. Once they are on European territory, states are obliged to at least examine any potential asylum claim. Accordingly, the EU invests vast sums in military and surveillance technologies to physically defend its borders against unauthorised entry, and to track and control the few asylum seekers who do make it to Europe. The EU’s total border security budget for 2021-27 is €3.49 billion, 2.6 times bigger than for 2014-20. The budget for its border guard, Frontex, is now the largest of any EU agency. At €544 million, it has more than quintupled since 2014.

A substantial share of these massive investments finances surveillance systems and other border enforcement technologies. As outlined in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, technology plays a central role in the militarisation, automation, and externalisation of borders. For example, EUROSUR – a network of surveillance technologies used at Europe’s external borders, such as the ROBORDER system of aerial and underwater drones – is used to intercept migrants and force them back to third countries like Turkey, Libya, and Morocco. These countries have agreements with Europe to contain onward migration and accept the forcible return of those attempting to reach Europe, effectively shifting Europe’s borders outside its territory. 

Other key European border technology projects include EURODAC, a database of biometric information on all asylum claimants in the EU, used to restrict their movement between member states; and ‘smart borders’, an umbrella term for various identification systems used to operate ‘parallel border regimes’. These facilitate movement for ‘trusted travellers’ while barring those deemed suspicious. Assorted border security-related R&D programmes are also funded by the EU’s research funding agency, Horizon, which works directly with Frontex to select funding projects. 

These programmes are often justified publicly by empty rhetoric around protecting migrants, but their goals and outcomes are precisely the opposite. Frontex and national border agencies use surveillance technologies to aid illegal ‘pushbacks’ and ‘pullbacks’ of migrants, often to countries like Libya where they are likely to suffer torture and inhumane treatment (‘pushbacks’ are operations where European authorities directly intervene to force migrants back to third countries, whereas in ‘pullbacks’ they instruct third-country authorities to carry out such operations). In some cases, EU authorities and third-country coastguards have simply abandoned boats in the Mediterranean and left those on board to drown. Surveillance technology is also used to intercept migrants at the EU’s land borders in the Balkans, where there is extensive documentation of illegal pushbacks and other human rights violations, including serious assaults and sexual violence, by border agencies. Evidence shows that border surveillance increases deaths by pushing migrants to attempt more dangerous routes. This is a feature, not a bug: when European policymakers discuss avoiding ‘pull factors’, the subtext is that borders should be as dangerous as possible to discourage any attempt to cross.  

The European border-industrial complex

Private companies have played a vital role in establishing surveillance technology as a core element of EU border policy. Their influence and close relationships with policymakers have led UN Special Rapporteur Achiume, as well as many other scholars and activists, to describe the network of policymakers, corporations, and lobbyists who set European migration policies as a ‘border-industrial complex’. Some of the most important players are the arms manufacturers Airbus, Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica), and Thales – all partially state-owned. 

With the huge sums available in the EU budget, border security is a highly lucrative market. As noted by Ruben Andersson, an ethnographer who studies the ‘illegality industry’, it is even more so because it ‘feeds on its own failures’. Every time the EU experiences another highly mediatised and exaggerated ‘migration crisis’, demand for border security products grows again. Moreover, the companies involved are not just passively responding to market forces, but work hard to promote the border policies which create these opportunities – both by marketing specific technological solutions and more broadly by promoting relevant political messages and frames. 

This messaging is exemplified by the quote at the start of this article from the SIA, an industry lobby group promoting digital identification technologies. Business leaders frame migration as an urgent security threat and unauthorised migrants as criminals; their technosolutionist promise is that high-tech products can neutralise these threats and enable states to seamlessly segregate desirable from undesirable travellers. The emphasis on ‘efficient’ and ‘cost-effective’ solutions is also telling: these programmes fit into broader global trends of neoliberalism and public-sector privatisation. Governments can offload responsibility to corporations in the nominal pursuit of efficiency while turning authoritarian border control institutions into opportunities for private profit accumulation. 

The NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Corporate Europe Observatory have published detailed reports on the lobbying operations arms and technology companies use to promote their preferred political frames. For instance, the industry enjoys close relationships with European policymakers, facilitated by a ‘revolving door’ between public and private positions. A high-profile example is the EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton, former CEO of the  technology firm Atos, a key contractor for the EU’s ‘smart borders’ projects. Moreover, Frontex met 138 lobby groups from 2017-19, and now runs dedicated lobbying fairs to meet with all interested parties more efficiently. These same companies have also been closely involved with European research funding institutions, sitting on advisory boards for the same programmes which direct extensive funding to their projects and affiliated research groups. Overall, the result is that arms and technology companies exercise decisive influence over European policy discourse around migration and borders, while NGOs seeking to emphasise fundamental rights and justice are locked out of key fora.

These relationships persist because they are highly beneficial for both sides. For the arms and technology companies, their influence helps them maintain access to a profitable and fast-growing market. The expansion and long-term lock-in of border security funding in the EU’s 2021-27 budget illustrate how advantageous the relentless focus on securing Europe’s ‘way of life’ against threatening outsiders has been for the industries who will receive much of this funding. Frontex’s budget continues to balloon, and it was relaunched in 2016 with an expanded mandate and the ability to purchase its own equipment, a key demand of industry lobbyists since 2010. 

On the EU side, investing in privatised border security solutions serves industrial policy goals, stimulating Europe’s prized arms and dual-use (military/civilian technology) industries and consolidating the common market for security, as well as (in many cases) handing money to state-owned companies. The industry’s technosolutionist and securitised framings of migration are also convenient for politicians, who can gain popularity by constructing migration as an urgent external threat while claiming to hold the solutions. Finally, as migration law expert Petra Molnar notes, migrants can be used as a ‘laboratory for technological experiments’ with new surveillance technologies like biometrics, which can later be rolled out more widely across the population. 

State crime and path dependency

Fran Cetti, who has researched how constructing migrants as a threat serves unifying and legitimising functions in European politics, describes Europe’s militarised border controls as ‘systematizing…state crime’. European border agencies, and the private companies providing them with technologies and services, operate with disregard for European fundamental rights and international law, and with no meaningful oversight or accountability. 

As noted at the start, border surveillance is a crucial element of European states’ strategy to evade their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The aim of physically barricading European territory, and coordinating ‘pullbacks’ with third-country authorities, is to disclaim any jurisdiction over asylum claims or human rights violations. However, there is extensive documentation of international law violations committed directly by European agencies in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Moreover, leading international law scholars James Hathaway and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen have argued that states have jurisdiction for violations outside their territory where they provide direct involvement and assistance to other countries, which would clearly apply to ‘pullback’ cases. In 2019, Sciences Po students unsuccessfully petitioned the ICC to prosecute EU member states for their non-intervention in migrant shipwrecks and coordination of pullbacks to Libya, arguing that they exercise effective control over Libyan operations involving human rights violations. 

Although Europe’s deadly external border rightly gains particular attention, surveillance systems like EURODAC which are used internally also raise serious fundamental rights concerns – in particular regarding privacy, since migrants cannot realistically refuse consent to provide their biometric data, and algorithmic discrimination. The latter is a particularly salient risk in the context of border control technologies, since biases in automated decision-making systems which systematically disadvantage certain groups are often linked to race, language and other forms of social marginalisation. Furthermore, the collection of data for surveillance creates a risk of ‘system avoidance’, i.e. that migrants may avoid essential services due to concerns about their data being used for purposes like deportation proceedings. Software and technological services used within Europe are also more likely to be outsourced entirely than the militarised technologies used at the external border; as Molnar highlights, this can enable ‘agency laundering’, allowing public authorities to evade public oversight and human rights obligations by shifting responsibility to the private sector.

Politically, the influence of the border-industrial complex is deeply concerning for any opponents of Europe’s lethally exclusionary border regime. The industry advances racist ideologies which frame migrants as threatening outsiders, while decentring discussions of migrant rights or justice in favour of simplistic technosolutionist fixes. Both the technologies themselves and the surrounding policy discourse dehumanise and criminalise migrants: for example, most EURODAC categories define migrants as illegal by default, while EUROSUR permits long-distance surveillance of migrants as deindividualised groups, evading any identification or consideration of individual cases. 

Perhaps most concerningly, as Andersson notes, the border-industrial complex creates path dependencies which limit opportunities for policy change. The use of private technology to externalise, militarise and surveil borders is not just driven by rogue border agencies with their own agenda, or even by the EU acting autonomously, but by the ‘self-perpetuated convergence of interests’ between corporations, member state governments, and EU institutions – which is also broadly aligned with public anti-migration sentiment. These actors are deeply invested in the current exclusionary border regime and stand to continue reaping huge profits from it in coming years. 
A glimmer of hope for change can perhaps be seen in 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, which showed that anti-racist politics resonate strongly with large sections of Europe’s population, especially its youth. Border politics are a paramount racial justice issue: Europe’s border regime treats non-white lives as utterly disposable. Yet any move to treat migrants’ lives and fundamental rights as equal to those of Europeans would be directly opposed to entrenched and powerful economic interests, making meaningful change very difficult. As theorists of racial capitalism remind us, the diffe rentiation and violent exploitation of racialised populations has always been foundational to capitalist profit accumulation. Any attempt to overturn Europe’s racist border regime must reckon not only with anti-migrant political rhetoric and social antipathy, but also with the economic forces that will defend the status quo.