The Lucrative Business of Fending Off Migrants - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Lucrative Business of Fending Off Migrants

The Lucrative Business of Fending Off Migrants

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because humanitarian crises can be great business.

By Laura Secorun Palet

Pitou remembers someone yelling, “Go, go!” Three hundred young men, including him, began sprinting toward the fence. The first barrier was short. The second was three times taller. Pitou was exhausted by the time he got to the top. The barbed wire tore through his clothes, and his skin.

Next thing he remembers, he was lying on the ground, police surrounding him. And the Red Cross. They pulled him into an ambulance. Outside, he could hear his friends screaming in celebration: They had reached Europe.

Last August, Pitou successfully crossed the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The 6-meter barrier, covered in barbed wire and video cameras, is the last obstacle for thousands of African migrants like him trying to reach Europe each year. But where some see a challenge, others see a business opportunity.

Since the start of Europe’s “refugee crisis” in 2015, the continent’s demand for increased border security has created a lucrative niche for companies selling the equipment and expertise to build and monitor fences like the one Pitou jumped over. In the past two years, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey and Ukraine have all erected border fences.

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Would-be immigrants perch on a border fence separating Morocco from the North African Spanish enclave of Melilla, in February 2015.

Source ANGELA RIOS/Getty

Walls as a border-management strategy aren’t new — their popularity as a way of controlling migration is. Spain set up anti-migrant barriers back in the mid-’90s. But growing nationalist sentiments across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis and surging xenophobia in the wake of terror attacks like the ones in Paris in November 2015 have set the stage for sweeping border securitization across the continent — from the hills of Macedonia to the icy plains of Norway. According to a Gallup poll, by the end of 2015, more than half of Europeans wanted less immigration — almost double the global average. European countries have now erected 750 miles of brand-new fencing — almost 40 percent of America’s border with Mexico — since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the border security business, estimated at $18 billion in 2015, is expected to nearly double to $35 billion by 2022, according to the Transnational Institute.


Most contracts have gone to large security companies like Airbus, Leonardo, Safran and Thales that, according to Gonzalo Fanjul, a political researcher for the investigative nonprofit PorCausa, “don’t offer solutions to the management of human mobility,” but instead “are a response to a threat.” Some of these companies are also the biggest arms sellers to the Middle East and North Africa, potentially profiting on both ends of the refugee odyssey. Additionally, the wall-building spree has sparked concerns over the larger future of Europe’s Schengen policy of open borders.

Border securitization clearly does not stop migration, and, in many cases, it has a perverse effect.

Eugenio Ambrosi, International Organization for Migration

For sure, barriers work at first. They tend to reduce the number of irregular entries and aid law enforcement in catching undocumented migrants. Hungary, for example, went from up to 3,000 crossings a week to a reported 11 in October 2015, after building a border fence with Serbia. Fences can also yield political benefits. Europe’s far-right movements are forcing many moderate parties to put migration at the core of their political agenda. And border walls please many voters. In the case of Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s approval rating rose sharply after he announced their first fence; he promptly built a second one.

But migration barriers — including sophisticated technology like biometric devices, infrared sensors and data collection systems — are expensive. Spain alone spends almost 12 million euros a year to maintain its two southern barriers, double what it pays nongovernmental organizations to help assist refugees. On top of what member states spend individually, by 2020, the EU plans to allocate 6 billion euros to strengthen its external borders.

And experts believe spending this much money to obstruct migration is senseless. For one, routes shift. As soon as Greece put up a fence, more refugees began crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria. “Border securitization clearly does not stop migration, and, in many cases, it has a perverse effect,” argues Eugenio Ambrosi, director of the EU office for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Brussels. Border securitization also makes migrants more vulnerable, warns Ambrosi, forcing them to adopt riskier routes. In 2016, after the Balkans and Eastern Europe routes were blocked, migrant deaths rose 50 percent. And in 2017 — despite the huge military deployment in the Mediterranean, and the reduction in arrivals and deaths — the percentage of deaths per arrival increased, from 1.1 percent to 1.9 percent.

To “disrupt smuggler networks” is a key EU goal. But border securitization doesn’t help there either. Migration experts argue that Europe’s increasingly elaborate obstacle course actually benefits smugglers because it increases the need (and the cost) for their services. Every time a fence goes up, access to the European dream gets a little more expensive.

Blood and Profit

Pitou had no money left for smugglers after his yearlong journey from Cameroon to Morocco. So, he had no choice but to jump the fence. “Those with money hide inside cars or get boats,” explains the 22-year-old mechanic, “but I just kept trying to go over. It took months. The first five times, I got caught and sent back.”

What Pitou failed to pay in smuggling fees, he paid in blood. Lifting the sleeves of his jumpsuit, the young man shows the many long, pink scars left on his arms by the fence’s barbed wire. Yet the company that installed it, European Security Fencing, insists the wire is not meant to hurt anyone. In a statement to the press, the company’s manager explains that its product serves as a psychological deterrent for migrants who “will see the wire and avoid the jump.”

Such comments illustrate the stark contrast between how security companies market their services and how migrants experience them on the ground. Websites of these firms often illustrate their “border control” packages with James Bond–like imagery and promises to “secure your future” or “future-proof your border.” Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers across Europe attend to migrants like Pitou, who are often suffering from life-threatening cuts, contusions and hypothermia.

Humanitarian concerns rarely make it into the technology exhibits and expert panels of high-tech border security events. As their names suggest, forums like the “European Border Management, Defence, Internal Security and Migration Conference” and the “European Border Management Conference” are dry affairs, attended largely by white men in suits representing their governments or their company’s sales team.

But in-person meetings can be very persuasive, and some worry about the ability of these powerful corporations to lobby for restrictive migration policies to enhance their bottom line. Ska Keller, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens–European Free Alliance, has been raising the alarm, writing about the “convergence of business interests and the aims of political hard-liners who view migration as a threat to the EU’s homeland security.” So far, some of the biggest recipients of these contracts have been giant companies like the French Airbus, the Italian Leonardo and the Spanish Isdefe and Indra — which also sell weapons systems, but none of which replied to repeated requests for comment.

A company that did reply was SITA, a Switzerland-based multinational providing border management solutions to around 40 governments. Andy Smith, the company’s business development director for border management and government services, confirms “the border management needs of European countries have been increasing year on year.” And their fastest-selling service? “Biometrics is a huge area of growth,” he says.

Private companies can be valuable partners, argues Krzysztof Borowski, public relations officer for Frontex. The EU’s border agency often relies on contractors for leasing equipment and personnel that member states can’t provide, and, Borowski argues, “private companies offer reliability and flexibility.” In fact, he says, the agency is likely to rely even more on them in the future, as they explore the potential of new technology, like surveillance drones.

The most influential lobbying group in this arena is the European Organization for Security (EOS). This Brussels-based nonprofit represents the interests of the continent’s 41 most prominent security companies. Alberto Curatolo, EOS’ border control policy manager, argues that the EU funds that many of EOS’ members receive for research are “very crucial, as they might provide interoperable solutions to technologies that could be deployed in areas more affected by the migration crisis.” As for the role of EOS in shaping EU policy, Curatolo simply states that EOS represents the interests of its members like any other organization does, adding, “We are transparent in doing so.”

Whether the result of lobbying or not, if its growing penchant for border militarization continues, the EU could be putting its own future in jeopardy. So far, the unilateral erection of border fences is already undermining one of its most crucial pacts, the Schengen agreement.

Europe’s Hardening Future

Signed in 1985, the Schengen treaty states that “internal borders may be crossed at any point without a border check on persons, irrespective of their nationality, being carried out.” That included third-country migrants, such as Syrian refugees, until individual states began playing fence domino.

To be sure, EU rules did allow for extraordinary border control measures in case of “serious threat to public policy or internal security,” but their time limit was six months. Two years after those rules were invoked amid the largest refugee migration in Europe since World War II, Brussels has turned a blind eye on continuing Schengen violations and instead decided to allow border controls to stay up for two more years.

What was once a state of exception has now become the general rule, says Adriano Bosoni, senior Europe analyst for the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. According to Bosoni, if this trend continues, the EU will have to rewrite Schengen, which would then make it easier for countries to enact ever-more-protective border controls. And no drop in migration is likely to stop this, he says. “At first the justification was migration, but now it’s shifting toward fear of terrorism, which is much harder to qualify.”

The economic costs of a weaker Schengen would be astronomic. Border controls would increase the price of many goods and hurt tourism. But there is one industry that stands to benefit greatly. “It would definitely be a great opportunity for border security companies,” says Bosoni.

Of course, the EU may change strategy, and there are plenty of alternatives to this fence-first model of migration management. The IOM’s suggestion is to create legal pathways for migrants to come work in Europe, which it says would drastically reduce the number of irregular arrivals and boost security.

But if budgets are any indication, Europe is set on its lock-and-load approach. The EU is currently in the process of turning Frontex into the more powerful “European Border and Coast Guard Agency.” The revamped organization’s budget had already doubled in 2017, but it is estimated to grow to 322 million euros in 2020 — 50 times its original size in 2005.

The industry, too, seems to be growing. Most European companies involved in border control have seen their profits surge in the last year, and the Transnational Institute estimates, as a whole, the border securitization industry is expanding at an annual rate of 8 percent. Their next paychecks will likely come from Eurosur, an EU-funded system using aircrafts, drones and satellites to monitor Europe’s external borders, which will cost an estimated 244 million euros by 2020.

Europe’s lockdown is unlikely to raise any international criticism. After all, Saudi Arabia has built a security barrier in the desert with Yemen, Kenya is fencing off its border with Somalia and U.S. President Donald Trump made the Mexican wall a core promise of his presidency. What’s more, the EU is working to export the model even further. Through its so-called Migration Partnership Framework, it is now cooperating to strengthen border control in 16 countries including Ethiopia, Mali and Sudan — thus opening a whole new profit frontier for the border security industry.

Back in Spain, the government has decided to spend an extra $14 million in reinforcing the Ceuta fence because “it is not fulfilling its purpose.” Companies will now compete to see who gets to clean the patches of rust, replace the bent barbed wire and set up state-of-the-art thermal imagery cameras.

As Europe’s approach to mobility hardens, its consequences are becoming more evident. Contractors will make millions, smugglers will get more clients and migrants like Pitou will have an ever-tougher journey to prosperity.

The young Cameroonian dreams of reaching Denmark, but is afraid of leaving Spain. He would need to cross France, which he has heard is now tightening its control of vehicles crossing the border. Still, Pitou is going to try. “I only have one way to go,” he says. “Forward.”

* Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the organization political researcher Gonzalo Fanjul works for. The organization is PorCausa. 


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