Protecting European borders: 21st century King Canute

Dramatic clouds behind barbed wire fence on a prison wall

Border security is an issue of rising concern and controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a constant priority in the face of the migrant crisis in Europe, which has seen a huge rise in people trafficking and mass movement of asylum seekers and illegal migrants crammed onto hundreds of ramshackle boats across the Mediterranean from the MENA countries.

The migrant crisis has also fuelled fears of further infiltration by ISIL into a continent that for decades has promulgated free movement of people and the absorption of refugees. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016, border security became arguably the biggest challenge faced by EU institutions since its inception. Terrorists slipped easily into Paris from Belgium, and some had entered the EU with crowds of migrants via Greece.

Many land borders are ungoverned spaces where movement across formal state lines is controlled only at checkpoints. Border and protection systems must be selective and cannot afford to enforce full screening at every key point, but must instead decide what and who to target on entry, or before entry. Each mode of transportation – by land, sea, and air – poses its own dilemmas and many border systems hold up traffic and trade while not stopping illicit materials and people entering their territory.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic at Killeen, as viewed from the UK side, is currently marked only by a metric (km/h) speed limit sign. Wikipedia
The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic at Killeen, as viewed from the UK side, is currently marked only by a metric (km/h) speed limit sign.

Most countries cannot afford to rigorously watch every border, especially at points where there is significant economic activity. They must develop protocols for selecting vehicles for inspection and customs enforcement so as not to increase border wait times or incur prohibitive costs.

Protecting borders and transportation nodes must factor in costs of a potential attack through that entry point into a country; the probability of that attack occurring; the costs of delayed traffic and trade; costs and effectiveness of scanning and other systems; lost or wasted time for passengers, and bureaucratic and political opposition of proposed measures to protect a given border or transportation network.

Europe: the Schengen problem

The rules governing the passport-free Schengen Area continue to be scrutinised, as this is increasingly seen as a handicap in tracking and catching terrorists. There are 26 Schengen countries – 22 EU members and four non-EU – covering an area of 44,000 km of external sea borders and nearly 9,000 km of land borders, allowing for internal movement for half a billion people. The UK is outside the zone along with Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, and Romania.

Harmonising EU policy for justice and home affairs means 28 countries creating a common set of policies for counterterrorism, cross-border crimes, border controls and immigration. Unwieldy bureaucracies and the need for greater sharing of intelligence, countries and agencies have multiple challenges to keep up with the pace of increased terrorist threats.

The European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) instigated in December 2013 aimed to ensure “monitoring, detection, identification, tracking, prevention and interception of unauthorised border crossings for the purpose of detecting, preventing and combating illegal immigration and cross-border crime and contributing to ensuring the protection and saving the lives of migrants.”

Tightening the borders

In December 2015 the European Commission proposed a major amendment to Schengen. Non-EU travellers have always had their details checked against police databases at the EU’s external borders. The main change is that the rule will apply to EU citizens as well, who until now had been exempt. Non-EU nationals who have a Schengen visa generally do not have ID checks once they are travelling inside the zone. But since the Paris atrocities last November those checks have increased.

In September 2015 Germany re-introduced controls on its border with Austria, and with Denmark in January 2016. UK border staff intensified checks on passengers, vehicles and goods coming from France after the January 2015 Paris attacks. More pre-flight passenger data is being collected.

Europe has installed new border controls within the Schengen Area. UNHCR
Europe has installed new border controls within the Schengen Area.

In May 2016 EU member states decided on six more months of border controls within the Schengen area despite protests from Greece and Slovenia. Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden will continue border checks within the bloc’s passport-free zone until near the end of 2016. Border checks will therefore become the norm in parts of Europe following the vast migrant influx in 2015.

Post-Brexit: moving the UK border

One consequence of the UK leaving the EU could mean installing air and maritime border controls between its border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to control immigration from the EU. This would put the onus on the Irish Republic as a border with the rest of the EU, instead of the UK having to introduce a ‘hard border’ between north and south – which would be regarded as breaking the 1998 Belfast Agreement and Ireland’s commitment to free movement of people as part of the EU. It could also present a possible catalyst to further terrorism in a province that has largely rescinded political violence and still working hard to prevent its resurgence.

Of more immediate concern is the outcome of the clearance of the Calais migrant camp, where some migrants are likely to resist being moved to refugee centres in other parts of France because they are determined to reach the UK. French politicians are calling for the border with the UK to be moved from Calais to Kent, removing the 2003 that allows UK border checks to be carried out on the French mainland.

Britain remains vulnerable as an island. Sea ferries still undergo far fewer checks than aviation transit. Vessels may be used to smuggle weapons into an unguarded point along Britain’s long coastline. Beyond that, some observers believe that the migrant influx will increase exponentially with climate change affecting poorer countries, and that the future will be borderless.