Lobbying Fortress Europe
The making of a border-industrial complex
The massive expansion of the budget, personnel, and powers of the EU's border agency Frontex has also seen increasingly privileged access for industry. This perpetuates a vision of border control based on more and more firearms and biometric surveillance that has major human rights implications.
The massive expansion of EU border agency Frontex in recent years has not been matched by a corresponding increase in transparency, accountability, nor scrutiny.
Access to document requests reveal a disturbing trend by which arms, surveillance, and biometrics companies are being given an outsized role – unmatched by other voices – in shaping EU's border control regime.
This report gives the first comprehensive overview of this phenomenon, finding that:
- Frontex holds special events for security industry lobbyists where they work hand in hand to promote 'solutions' based on techno-fixes, from biometric surveillance to firepower.
- These corporate interests are not neutral parties but de facto seek to shape Frontex's approach to border control in their interests, and benefit from procurement contracts.
- Meanwhile the agency has no real transparency or lobbying accountability mechanisms in place, and indeed denies that it is a target for lobbyists at all.
- At the same time as the agency has open doors for corporate lobbyists selling defence and surveillance solutions which have major human rights implications, groups working to defend human rights are left on the sidelines.
The European Union's response to travellers, migrants, and refugees should be guided by the protection of human rights. This is too important an issue to be shaped by the interests of defence companies instrumentalising migration for profit.
In May 2018 a spokesperson from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) spoke to media outlet EUObserver about the EU border agency's bright future: "There are a lot of things happening and it is only 2018," she said.
Her excitement reflects the stunning growth of Frontex in recent years, which especially since 2015 – the height of the so-called EU refugee crisis – has experienced massive increases in budget, staffing, and powers.
Most recently in 2020 Frontex was granted a €5.6 billion budget, the largest of any EU agency. This is matched by an army of 10,000 border guards, an extension of its powers and mandate, and the fulfilment of a long-term wish: the ability to acquire and lease its own equipment (vessels, vehicles, air-planes, drones, radars etc), putting an end to the agency’s dependency on contributions from EU member states.
This is a dream come true not just for Frontex, but for the security industry. Spying the opportunity for a new and major customer, it has been advocating since 2010 for an EU-level border force with precisely those capabilities.
But the expansion of Frontex has repeatedly overlooked one crucial aspect: effective oversight and accountability mechanisms to keep a fast-growing agency under proper democratic control. A shortcoming whose effects have become evident in the recent months.
Over the course of 2020, a series of scandals have put Frontex at the centre of human rights abuses and illegal pushbacks of migrants, causing outrage and even calls to abolish Frontex. The EU agency has also been accused of withholding the truth from the European Parliament, and is currently under investigation by the EU anti-fraud watchdog OLAF for, among other things, mismanagement and harassment.
But the scandal of Frontex’s cozy relationship with the weapons and surveillance industry, brewing behind closed doors over the past few years, has received less attention.
Key to Frontex’s expansion and to the implementation of its ever-growing ambition and mandate, is the agency’s techno-fix approach to border control, which it channels through constant development and deployment of cutting-edge technology and equipment.
This is well understood by security corporations which, as the analysis of three years worth of lobbying documents reveals, can be relied upon to continuously develop and offer Frontex multiple products and services that can be used by the agency to further tighten its grip over the EU’s borders.
Today Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is publishing the first comprehensive overview of industry lobbying targeting the EU border agency, and an analysis of Frontex’ relationship with corporate actors. Over 130 documents received through freedom of information requests – and made available in full here – open a window onto at least 17 industry meetings convened by Frontex from 2017 to 2019.
In this period, the EU border agency met with 108 companies to discuss topics such as guns and ammunition, biometrics, maritime and aerial surveillance, heartbeat detectors, and document inspection systems. A noticeable omission from almost every one of these discussions is the potential impact on human rights of these technologies and products, including undermining people’s fundamental right to privacy, presumption of innocence, and liberty.
Overall, our analysis unveils a border-industrial complex well in the making; a powerful and well-resourced EU border agency whose tight relationship with the weapons and surveillance industry is held together by a common desire: stronger and better equipped physical borders, with aggressive surveillance imposed upon anybody seeking to cross an EU border, including EU citizens themselves.
In this win-win scenario for both Europe’s border guards and industry, and in absence of sufficient democratic control and oversight, people’s rights – in particular, the fundamental rights of people who migrate – are not only disregarded, but perpetually endangered.
Frontex and the defence and border control industry
The documents released allow us for the first time to map the companies and other private actors seeking to influence the work of Frontex. The result is a snapshot of an agency in constant contact with weapons, security, surveillance and biometrics companies to discuss market solutions to border control.
From 2017 to 2019 Frontex met with 138 private bodies – of these 108 were companies; 10 research centres / think tanks; 15 universities and 1 NGO (see table below). European defence companies Airbus and Leonardo were awarded the most access, with five meetings each. Cybersecurity firm Gemalto scored four meetings in this period, Gemalto has since been acquired by the defence Thales Group, which itself participated in three meetings with Frontex.
IT, cybersecurity and biometrics companies were the other stand-out: the Japanese NEC scored four meetings; Atos, IDEMIA, Jenetric, secunet, and Vision-Box all participated in three meetings.
Unsurprisingly there is a significant overlap between the companies that directly lobby Frontex and the companies that benefit from EU procurement for building Europe’s walls, both physical and virtual.
The rest of the list includes other defence and security companies like BAE systems, INDRA, and Safran; gun-makers like Glock and Cenzin, and institutions that promote the use of biometrics like the European Association for Biometrics (members include JENETRIC and Secunet) and the Biometrics Institute (members include Facebook, Microsoft, and MasterCard). It also includes unexpected meetings with companies like carmaker Daimler and telecoms multinational Vodafone.
The majority of companies are European, with a few exceptions from Japan (NEC), Canada (Face4Systems), and Israel (Elbit Systems, Shilat Optronics, Seraphim Optronics).
You can see the full list of which lobbyists Frontex met with here.
Notoriously absent from these meetings are human rights organisations.
It seems also that the consultative forum on human rights, established by Frontex’s mandate to provide advice to the agency, has not been consulted on the issues that Frontex discusses with industry. This body, made up of international organisations and civil society organisations, can be consulted on any matter related to fundamental rights but it is up to Frontex to decide on which issues.
The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), an ex-member of the Forum, had no memory of "any discussion between the Consultative Forum and Frontex or access to any information in relation to procurement of technologies or relationships with security companies”.
This seems to be confirmed by the publicly available work programmes for the Forum from 2017-2019. The fact the agency mostly meets with corporate interests and that it does not consult the forum on these issues, raises questions as to which voices the agency prioritises.
Frontex’s lobby transparency
The relationship between Frontex and lobbyists has caught the attention of members of the European Parliament. During the process to approve the agency’s budget for 2016, MEPs asked Frontex how it handled lobby meetings. Frontex replied that it "only met with registered lobbyists who are registered in the EU transparency register and publish annually an overview of meetings on its website; no meetings were held in 2017”.
However it is difficult to reconcile this answer with the information provided by the Frontex Files. In 2017 alone Frontex held at least four meetings with industry, in which they discussed Biometrics on the Move, Maritime Analysis Tools, Automated Document Inspection Systems, (DIS) and Advance Traveller Risk Assessment. Of the 24 private bodies that participated in these meetings – mostly companies – over half (58 per cent or 14 bodies) were not registered in the EU Transparency Register.
Industry representatives were also invited to annual European Border and Coast Guard Day, an event hosted by Frontex to celebrate itself but also to “bring together the worlds of public service and private industry”. Pictures show booths from firms like Elbit Systems and Flir Systems in 2017 SidenoteA recent report from EUObserver also brought to the public’s attention that these events had luxurious budget, costing a total of €2.1 million from 2015 to 2019. None of them were disclosed to us despite being within the scope of our freedom of information requests., though we were not given participants’ lists.
The discrepancies do not end there. In 2018 and 2019, 72 per cent (91 of 125) of all the lobbyists that Frontex met were not registered in the EU Transparency Register.
Not only that, but the annual overview of meetings seems to be incomplete; even the webpage with invitations for meetings does not include them all. Participants lists are mostly absent. We also found meetings that were not published on the website nor released upon request, such as with defence company Leonardo.
Frontex’s way of handling lobbying is unique. In 2015, it was reportedly overwhelmed with requests for one-to-one meetings and decided instead to introduce bi-annual industry days in which companies apply to participate.
Frontex re-directs companies seeking meetings to an online application to be considered for an industry day, which the border agency then reviews. Though it is still open to direct meetings, if needed. And it invites industry to a variety of different events, from conferences, to its annual celebration of its own work, to discussions to get industry input before it writes up procurement processes, to more intimate meetings where the future of border technology is discussed. As far as we can see from the documents released to us and from the current application form, nowhere does Frontex ask companies to provide their EU Transparency Register number.
We reached out to Frontex with questions regarding the discrepancy between what it told the European Parliament and its approach to handling lobbying. We were told by Frontex’s press office that:
"Frontex does not meet with lobbyists. Given our mandate (contribute to the implementation of integrated border management at the external borders of the EU) and the fact that the agency does not play a role in the EU decision-/law-making process, Frontex does not attract the interest of lobbyists."
A surprising answer considering the number of interactions between Frontex and representatives of business interests. Indeed, the EU Transparency Register, (the basis of the EU institutions’ lobby regulations) defines lobbying not only as all activities that seek to “directly or indirectly influence” policy-making processes but also activities to shape their implementation.
Frontex is charged with implementing the EU’s border and migration policy – and it has leeway to decide how to do so. Recent reforms put Frontex in charge of increasing powers over procurement, research, and innovation. It is to be expected that the interest by corporate lobbyists in Frontex grows in tandem with the agency’s own budget and responsibilities over procurement.
We shared the EU’s Transparency Register definition of lobbying with Frontex and asked them to clarify why the agency’s encounters with industry wouldn’t be covered by that definition.
The answer is far from clear. Once again, Frontex denied meeting with lobbyists but it added:
"Frontex does invite company representatives to take part in the agency’s Industry Days, which serve to provide border control officials a way of learning about new technologies and innovations related to border control. Frontex also meets officials during open Informative Meetings (in relation to open procurement procedure) and in the contract implementation phase (i.a. kick off meetings).
While meetings to arrange “contract implementation” should not be considered lobbying as those companies are providing a service, there is still no justification as to why the agency’s Industry Days would not. Of the 17 meetings we identified, only three related to EU funded projects or service contracts."
Mark Akkerman, researcher at anti-arms trade campaign group Stop Wapenhandel and at the Transnational Institute, told us that Frontex’s answer is not unexpected “but it is nonsense”.
According to Akkerman “while Frontex might not be the prime target for industry lobbyists seeking to influence EU border and migration policy” – that would be the EU Institutions and member states – the agency does “have room to decide for itself about which equipment and services it needs... and in that sense is of interest for lobbyists, trying to steer them to purchasing equipment and services that are provided by specific companies.”
Regardless of how Frontex defines its interactions with industry, the European Parliament has not let go. During the 2019 negotiations on the expansion of Frontex, the European Parliament demanded the agency introduce a system of lobby transparency “by means of a transparency register and by disclosing all its meetings with third-party stakeholders". Frontex told Statewatch that such a register was “under preparation” and it meant “to develop the policy and a fully-fledged system by beginning of 2021 the latest” SidenoteWe also asked Frontex what the plans were regarding this register, however, received a different answer, which seems to refer to the upcoming register of documents, rather than a lobby meetings list..So far (February 2021), that system is still not available.
It seems though that there will be some work needed to ensure that such a register is robust – starting by agreeing on a clear definition of what lobbying is, in line with EU practice.
More money and more powers to intensify lobbying
In 2019 the EU Institutions expanded the scope and power of Frontex, allowing it to recruit a standing corps of up to 10,000 staff by 2027, some of which will be allowed to use force (and carry handguns). Frontex’s budget was also generously expanded to €5.6 billion for 2021-2027. Part of this budget is meant to allow the agency to finally be able to buy equipment directly (previously, Frontex had relied on member states’ equipment).
Frontex’s responsibilities over the EU’s funding for research and innovation in technology for border control have also been steadily increasing. In August 2020 Frontex signed an agreement with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs to increase Frontex’s involvement with the Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe). This is no trifling matter – as Frontex described in its press release: “The Horizon 2020 Work Programme 2018-2020 for Secure Societies plans an indicative budget of EUR 118 million of EU grants for research projects under research topics in the area of 'Border and External Security'."
It is not a surprise then that Frontex seems to be getting ready to change the way it interacts with industry. In response to a 2019 request for a meeting by Elbit Systems, Frontex declared it was “analysing the opportunity to create a structured and more sophisticated approach related to the dialogue with industry, enriching this way the current setup”.
Later that year, Frontex invited Airbus, GMV, Indra, Leonardo, and NEC for a Technological Foresight Dialogue meeting. Frontex wanted to start a dialogue and achieve "closer cooperation”. During this meeting, Frontex announced its new powers over Horizon Europe research and innovation, particularly that “the Agency will support the EC in choosing topics dedicated to the border security domain”.
This seemed to take a significant portion of the meeting with corporate representatives present expressing “their interest to be involved especially in those projects or programmes where the continuity can be ensured". The message from industry seemed to align with Frontex’s: there is a need to “encourage a greater role for industry, and give coherence, synchronization and continuity to existing financial resources". Industry’s concerns didn’t end here – they also asked for “mutual trust” to allow exchanges of information, data, and experience on a regular basis.
As a next step, Frontex was to assess the possibility of continuing this dialogue with industry but also “involve industry in the next endeavours related to technology foresight” SidenoteThe document ends with a curious note, stating Frontex’s partners in technology foresight: a few EU and international bodies plus two industry lobby groups – the European Space Industry Association, which represents companies like Airbus, Indra and Thales; and the European Organisation for Security, which represents members like Airbus, Indra, Leonardo and Thales. So to expand the dialogue with industry, Frontex will contact the groups that echo businesses’ messages.. It seems Frontex is prioritising dialogue with business interests, seeking their input even on future forecasting. This is telling: who you ask will shape the answers you get, but it also reveals the scope of your thinking. When looking at the future of border control, Frontex called upon defence and surveillance manufacturers.
Who you ask will shape the answers you get, but it also reveals the scope of your thinking. When looking at the future of border control, Frontex called upon defence and surveillance manufacturers.
We should then not be surprised that the solutions being considered are exactly more investment in arms and surveillance technology. As we will see later, this often comes at the expense of the rights of both migrants, and also EU citizens.
Frontex, middleman between industry and public authorities
A key component in Frontex’s relationship and interactions with corporate actors is the agency’s proclaimed role in “[facilitating] cooperation between border control authorities, research and industry,” considered by the agency as one of the main tasks within its mandate.
Meetings between Frontex and industry – often also attended by other public representatives – become the setting for the creation and strengthening of this cooperation.
Out of a total 17 meetings analysed for the purpose of this research, 7 were attended by EU member state representatives Sidenote21 March 2017 - Second Industry Day Workshop on Advance Traveler Risk Analysis; 18 May 2017 - Showcasing of Automated Document Inspection Systems (DIS) for first-line use; 25 September 2018 - Workshop on border security research and innovative solutions; 10 October 2018 - Workshop with Industry on Border Control Devices and Systems for Entry/Exit; 20-21 November 2018 - Meeting Frontex-Border Guard Authorities-Industry; 26-27 June 2019 - Workshop on border security related EU funded research projects; 9-10 October 2019 - International Conference on Biometrics for Borders., 7 were attended by representatives of other EU bodies and institutions Sidenote18 May 2017 - Showcasing of Automated Document Inspection Systems (DIS) for first-line use; 25 September 2018 - Workshop on border security research and innovative solutions; 10 October 2018 - Workshop with Industry on Border Control Devices and Systems for Entry/Exit; 20-21 November 2018 - Meeting Frontex-Border Guard Authorities-Industry; 16 May 2019 - Workshop on technology foresight; 26-27 June 2019 - Workshop on border security related EU funded research projects; 9-10 October 2019 - International Conference on Biometrics for Borders., 2 were attended by representatives of intergovernmental organisations Sidenote18 May 2017 - Showcasing of Automated Document Inspection Systems (DIS) for first-line use; 9-10 October 2019 - International Conference on Biometrics for Borders., and 4 meetings had representatives of non-EU countries Sidenote21 March 2017 - Second Industry Day Workshop on Advance Traveler Risk Analysis; 10 October 2018 - Workshop with Industry on Border Control Devices and Systems for Entry/Exit; 20-21 November 2018 - Meeting Frontex-Border Guard Authorities-Industry; 9-10 October 2019 - International Conference on Biometrics for Borders..
Representatives of member states in attendance at these meetings are from European national border control authorities, as well as national police forces of up to three representatives each, while the EU presence is from the European Commission’s DG Home or Frontex’s sister agencies such as eu-Lisa or Europol.
Larger events such as the International Conference on Biometrics for Borders involve a small number of intergovernmental organisations, including from bodies such as the Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and on one occasion the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
These gatherings also involve a noticeable number of representatives from non-EU countries, many of which have working arrangements with Frontex. Lists of attendees include delegates from countries known for their strong and often ruthless immigration policies, such as the Australian Government, the US Customs and Border Protection, the US Department of Homeland Security, the Angola Ministry of Interior, and the United Arab Emirates. Other participants include neighbouring countries to the EU, such as Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Belarus, or Bosnia Herzegovina.
As researcher Mark Akkerman points out, “This is part of EU border externalisation efforts: inviting third countries to present to them the equipment the EU thinks they need, in order to help them tighten their border infrastructure, to keep refugees as far away as possible from the EU.”
Beyond networking: from product pitching to procurement opportunities
The eight gatherings analysed involving Frontex, industry actors, and other public authorities (EU, national, and non-EU) vary in form but share similar dynamics. For all of these meetings, industry actors are given a unique platform where they can showcase their products and initiate dialogue with EU-wide border control authorities. All external or human rights-oriented oversight is left out of the room.
In most cases, these encounters take the form of a one or two-day workshop where a selection of companies carry out a presentation for an audience composed mostly of EU border control authorities. Topics covered range from surveillance and reconnaissance systems, to maritime surveillance, biometrics, heartbeat detectors, and vessel tracking.
Yet these meetings are not limited to information exchange and product development updates. They are sometimes explicitly created to facilitate the purchase of products and procurement opportunities.
For instance in October 2018 Frontex convened a two-day workshop at the request of EU member states. The meeting gathered “industry providers presenting their existing and developing products and Member States looking to the future acquisition and deployment of those devices and systems”.
In its invitation to corporate actors, Frontex openly stated: “The information presented in the meeting may be the starting point for future procurement of equipment by the EU border guard authorities, in the context of the upcoming Entry/Exit system implementation”.
This is a prime example of Frontex playing the role of intermediary between the border control and weapons industries and their prime customers: public authorities seeking to tighten the grip on their borders.
In a similar gathering in May 2017, Frontex organised a three-hour product showcase on Document Inspection Systems, where 16 company representatives were given exhibition stands to display their products. Over 50 public authority representatives were invited to review the showcase, and to run their own tests on the products.
This is typical of these meetings between Frontex, industry, and public authorities, which are largely about networking and sales and almost never research-focused, with the single exception of one meeting held in June 2019 to discuss security-related EU research projects.
Far from the image portrayed by Frontex whereby the agency creates networks between industry and member states for the exchange of research, expertise, and knowledge, the meeting documents reveal a very different dynamic: one where corporations use these gatherings to stage pitches of their products and services, showcasing their latest technologies and gadgets to a room full of receptive potential customers.
Frontex’s own invitations to industry sometimes even frame the meeting as an opportunity to meet clients: "For the industry and academia, the event will provide a proper framework to promote their recognised developments and meet with potential end-users.”
Indeed some companies even deliver – along with their PowerPoint presentations – product catalogues to the meeting participants.
Such a dynamic places Frontex not only as a key enabler of more heavily militarised border controls in member states, but also a beneficiary, since it facilitates Frontex's own operations, heavily dependent as they are on the effectiveness of those of the host member state. Forging a tight relationship between Frontex, industry, and member states therefore delivers a win-win-win scenario for these three parties, at the expense of human rights.
At the same time Frontex’s role as liaison between industry and national authorities undoubtedly makes the EU agency an ever more appealing lobbying target for border control and defence corporations since, as highlighted by researcher Mark Akkerman, it “puts Frontex in a position of deciding which companies are selected to be present at these meetings”. This inevitably weakens Frontex’s assertion that it “does not attract the interest of lobbyists”.
A tight relationship between Frontex, industry, and member states delivers a win-win-win scenario for these three parties, at the expense of human rights
By actively positioning itself as industry’s gateway to European border authorities, Frontex goes beyond merely setting the agenda and identifying key research themes for the advancement of border control. It facilitates a ripple effect throughout all of Europe’s border agencies of the industry actors it chooses, and the technologies it considers most attractive.
This means it is necessary for the EU institutions, national governments, journalists and civil society to subject Frontex to greater levels of scrutiny and oversight in its interactions with industry.
What was discussed?
The documents reveal several recurring themes: surveillance tools such as sensors, drones, cameras; but also the use of biometric data, as well as the procurement of handguns for Frontex officials. Others mentioned less often included other controversial methods such as accessing social media to anticipate migration flows or the deployment of robot swarms for border control.
However one theme unified all of industry's positions: technology is the solution to any and every problem.
Biometrics: the magic answer to Frontex’s problems
One of the most prominent topics discussed between Frontex and industry is the collection, use, storage and sharing of biometrics data (from fingerprints, to irises, and faces).
From the meetings analysed, three were convened by Frontex specifically to discuss biometrics. Furthermore biometrics often appears in wider discussions.
In 2017 Frontex hosted a 'Biometrics on the Move' meeting. According to the agency this “is understood as the acquisition of data (more in particular biometrics) at a distance for the purpose of identity verification as a person walks by data capture equipment”.
Presentations from companies at these meetings show a variety of technologies. Safran, for instance, presented facial recognition products, including MorphoSystem, which would replace passport checks, and Morpho ARGUS, described as “A real time face recognition system in live video feeds”.
Gemalto, which has since been bought by the Thales Group, submitted a presentation on the use of video facial recognition technology and ended its presentation with two recommendations to Frontex, namely that “Video-based face recognition has a lot to offer", and that "Face rec[ognition] on the move was not tested in the Smart Borders pilots but should be”.
The following year, in 2018, Gemalto once again attended the “Biometrics on the Move” meeting, where it presented a session on “identifying wanted persons ahead of a border, combining surveillance/face recognition with mobile devices”.
By 2019, Frontex had changed its approach. While preparing the launch of the International Conference on Biometrics for Borders (ICBB) Frontex described itself as a facilitator or ‘coordinator’ between the biometrics industry and border guard authorities.
This conference took place over two days and gathered together industry, academia, and representatives of EU and non-EU countries. Frontex described the aim of the meeting as enabling the agency “to become a driving force in providing support and expertise to Member States and the European Commission on the topic of biometrics, and the range of possible applications and implications for borders”.
The format and content of the conference was "tailored to the needs and requirements of both EC/Member States and research/academia and industry". Frontex’s ambition seems to be to lead the way by setting up a platform, choosing the framing, and coordinating with what it sees are 'key actors' i.e. industry, member states, and academia.
Industry, as expected, presents biometrics as the solution to every problem. For example the IN GROUPE presented automated biometric gates to "optimize" border control to manage the expected massive queues post-Brexit. It would also force every EU citizen and third country national to go through a biometric gate with a facial recognition system when crossing the border with the UK.
For those interested in reading more about the type of biometrics technologies being discussed with Frontex, read the documents directly here.
The second ICBB conference SidenoteThis meeting took place in 2020, beyond the time scope of our request, so we do not have the documents relating to it, nor the names of the companies attending. took place in December 2020 with, once again, Frontex as coordinator. The ICBB2020’s focus was on "the practical and operational implementation of the EES (Entry/Exit System) at the external borders of the European Union”. Once again, there is no space for ethical questions surrounding the use of biometrics at the border.
If there has ever been a technology that should be carefully debated it is biometric surveillance, especially facial recognition technology and other systems that can be deployed without consent. Biometrics technology is increasingly controversial, raising alarm bells in particular over potential violations of privacy and human rights.
There are also growing doubts over both the efficiency of these systems, and worrying biases built into them which can lead to false positives. Sarah Chander, Senior Policy Advisor at EDRi (European Digital Rights) emphasises: “We have seen countless examples of how AI systems can be used to harm people and society – from enabling biometric mass surveillance to exacerbating discrimination to the extraction of data from migrants in vulnerable situations.” This can hit Europe’s most marginalised groups hardest, “such as racialised communities, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities, workers, undocumented migrants, sex workers, and the organisations representing their rights.”
The use of AI for biometrics, particularly facial recognition technologies, has led to very heated discussions at the EU level. The European Commission has even considered imposing a moratorium on its use, although it later backtracked. The moratorium is now supported by the European Parliament.
In January 2021, 61 civil society organisations wrote to the European Commission asking for a “ban or moratorium on the use of automated technologies in border and migration control until they are independently assessed to determine compliance with international human rights standards”. A European Citizen’s Initiative has also been launched to gather citizen’s support to demand transparency over the use of facial recognition tools and a ban on biometrics mass surveillance.
Yet Frontex seems to be very eager to move things along on this topic.
Handguns for Frontex: becoming an armed border force
The procurement of handguns and ammunition also deserves extra attention. The documents show one meeting took place in 2019 to discuss “Procurement of handguns, ammunition and holsters for the standing corps of the European Border and Coast Guard”.
The revised mandate of Frontex (Regulation 2019/1896), provides the legal basis for these discussions: for the first time Frontex personnel could be allowed to carry weapons.
Frontex jumped at this opportunity. Six months after the approval of their new mandate – and while still navigating uncertainties around this new legal basis – Frontex invited industry to this two-day meeting. The main objective was to "gain insight from the market... and recommendations regarding the eventual future procurement" of handguns, a process that Frontex had tentatively scheduled for January 2020.
Only industry (both producers and distributors) were invited to give their input on the handguns and ammunition market. Frontex wanted to listen to prospective bidders’ concerns, and “if relevant, take the information gathered into consideration in order to improve the procurement documentation”.
Yet at the time of the meeting, Frontex was still in the process of clarifying key legal issues that could limit or make the agency’s access to and use of firearms difficult. A year after this meeting with industry, by December 2020 Frontex still had not yet managed to clarify all relevant legal questions. Even while Frontex was not entirely sure whether and how the agency could acquire its own firearms, it was already considering details such as whether Frontex’s future handguns could have the agency’s visual identity, and openly talking to industry in order to devise its procurement of handguns, ammunitions, and holsters.
Representatives of many units from Frontex were present, including the procurement unit. As far as can be seen from the documents released, neither the Fundamental Rights Officer nor anyone from the Consultative forum on Fundamental Rights were present.
Frontex also asked industry for input regarding training on how to use firearms. It is highly unlikely that those trainings will include key aspects such as de-escalation techniques which, when we know that Frontex is also seeking legal privileges and immunity for itself and its officers, is particularly worrying.
Industry representatives were also openly consulted and invited to give their input on a procurement procedure. This gives them an opportunity to influence the content of the procurement itself. Frontex clearly mentioned during the meeting that this discussion would not influence the outcome of the tendering procedure, however the input it gathered from industry could influence the call itself. Some of the feedback included input on the procedure itself (a ‘two-stage process’ was recommended) and recommendations to avoid publishing specific information.
This level of involvement of industry in the process of developing a public procurement in the EU is questionable, especially initiated by an agency. The fact that Frontex is the richest agency of the EU is probably a reason why industry is so keen on being involved. The fact that Frontex is equally interested is however quite worrying.
The elephant in the room: what is not being discussed in Frontex’s meetings
One thing stood out for us while analysing the documents. The consideration of the fundamental rights of people crossing borders as well as the concern for unethical use of both biometrics and handguns is, to say the least, scarce.
Out of the 136 documents we have received and analysed, we have found an astoundingly low number of mentions of human rights considerations or ethics concerns. And even these considerations aren’t as deep as one could wish for when discussing the handling of people’s data or taking care of vulnerable people like refugees. For instance this project’s sole objectives are to create an “impact assessment of the societal acceptance and legality of border crossing technology” and to create best practices.
Industry frames refugees as threats, surveillance as solution
Industry presentations tended towards a common theme, where migrants are considered not as subjects of border crossing but rather objects that need to be managed; migration is portrayed as a threat, often linked to terrorism and crime. This fear-mongering may very well lead to increases in purchases of biotechnologies, surveillance tools, and firearms. The weapons industry knows that and uses it to its advantage.
Biometrics company IDEMIA’s presentation at the ICBB in 2019, for instance, hailed the use of "sensors and devices to capture and control travellers". Without any context or evidence, the same presentation linked migration and recent terrorist attacks in Europe.
Intelligence company Thales used the same rhetoric in a presentation where it claimed that when there is "traffic density increase without any limit”there is a rise of “threats too". Once again, there is no backing evidence; it is merely presented as 'common sense' rather than opinion. Despite the fact that multiple research shows that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in Europe are perpetrated by European citizens. Sidenotehttps://pure.diis.dk/ws/files/910914/Report_05_Europes_Refugee_Crisis_Web.pdf and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1477370819896213
This framing process has been occurring for years and takes place outside of Frontex too, including at the EU political level. As Akkerman describes:
"With regard to migration, industry has succeeded in positioning its representatives as the experts on border security, pushing the underlying narrative that migration is first and foremost a security threat, to be combated by security and military means. As the basis of European migration policies, this premise creates an unending demand for the ever-expanding catalogue of equipment and services for border security and control."
The negative connotation of migrants and the ethically questionable behaviour from border guards (including Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks) should be put in a broader context of EU migration policy. From the Dublin regulations, to the more recent Smart Borders Package and Entry/Exit System, people crossing the EU’s external borders are considered ‘objects’ of the policy and not given much agency or rights. The dehumanisation of people who migrate and the link between migration and crime is more or less obvious in EU migration policy.
Altogether, this does not bring reassuring news about the future of migration policy or its implementation.
Moving beyond the border-industrial complex
The documents released to us depict an agency that is regularly in contact with the defence and surveillance industry – on whom it relies for today’s solutions to implementing EU border and migration policy, but also to prepare for the future.
This is not a neutral phenomenon. These companies have set out to make themselves 'border control experts' at the expense of migrants and refugees, whom they often frame as a threat; one they argue can only be tackled by investing more public money into these corporations’ surveillance and defence products.
Corporate interests have more access to Frontex than human rights organisations
As Sarah Chander told us: “the default position when it comes with technological systems deployed by systems of power over those with less power is one of potential harm, discrimination and inequality”. These technologies can have immense detrimental impacts on fundamental rights. Intrusive biometrics surveillance, for instance, can violate people’s right to privacy and can entrench racial discrimination. Yet there are no civil liberties groups attending Frontex’s meetings.
The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (Picum), ex-member of Frontex’ Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights, was concerned our research showed “how corporate interests have more access to Frontex than human rights organisations”.
Considering the growing power and budget of Frontex we can expect its relationship with industry to intensify. Scrutiny over it should, too. Parliament’s pressure on the agency to create a register for lobby meetings is a good development. Yet the mere fact that Frontex wrongly denies that it is being lobbied means the details of the design and implementation of this register will be essential.
To achieve adequate levels of lobby transparency we recommend that:
- Frontex’s upcoming lobby meeting register should be thorough and comprehensive, supported by a sturdy definition of lobbying:
- This register should not be limited to issues surrounding procurement but instead, cover all interactions with companies and their lobby groups.
- Meeting lists should be updated frequently, taking note of the practice at the EU Commission of updating meetings within two weeks of the meeting taking place.
- Meeting information should cover the name of the company, the date of the meeting and the issue being discussed. If meeting with a consultancy or any other lobby intermediary, the name of the client represented must be listed.
- When the meeting is attended by EU member state representatives and/or representatives of third countries, these attendees (including the delegate’s country and job title) must be declared as well.
- Beyond mandatory proactive transparency for senior officials, Frontex should make all officials record interactions with lobbyists.
- As much as possible, Frontex should follow best practice from the EU institutions and the practical recommendations from the EU Ombudsman on how to handle lobbyists.
- Documents related to meetings with lobbyists should be published proactively to the greatest extent possible and, at the very least, released when requested via freedom of information requests.
Transparency, however, should not be treated as the solution to this problem. Beyond transparency, Frontex must change and especially limit its relationship with industry.
The conclusions of our analysis are extremely worrying as they depict a migration policy moving towards ever more reliance (even more than now) on armed policing at the borders and biometric surveillance of people, whether EU citizens or not.
The way the EU responds to travellers, migrants, and refugees should, above all, be guided by the protection of human rights. This is too important an issue to be shaped by the profit-driven interests of defence companies.
It is urgent for the EU and its member states to operate an overhaul of its migration policies, including the role of Frontex. At the very least, Frontex’s unrestrained actions can no longer be tolerated, and serious accountability and scrutiny mechanisms need to be put in place.
Images sources: Frontex budget, source: here; Frontex meetings, source: here; Procedure for Frontex meetings with industry, source: here; Fabrice Leggeri, source: here; Thales slide, source: here; Gemalto slide, source: here; Grand Power slide, source: here; CLS slide, source: here; Airbus slide, source: here.