A new report published by the UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration last week revealed that almost half of all ports on the east coast of Britain were left unchecked by Border Force officers for more than a year, raising fears that these points of entry may have been exploited by people smugglers and illegal immigrants. The inspection report concluded that while Border Force was dealing with an increase in the number of “clandestine arrivals” at these points of entry appropriately, customs officials were stretched too thin. The UK’s Home Office was forced to admit that improvements needed to be made.
Almost completely ignoring the fact that the migrant crisis has put massive pressure on customs agencies across the whole of the EU, critics of Britain’s Conservative government pointed to the report as evidence that cuts to public services are seriously weakening border controls. But while some 250,000 migrants drop off the radar in the UK every year, 1.8 million illegal entries were made to EU countries in 2015 alone.
Frontex, the agency responsible for patrolling the EU’s common border, is struggling with a shortage of border guards, despite a huge increase in its budget over recent years. The conclusion to be drawn is that the money might be better spent on technology rather than manpower. The ongoing migrant crisis is likely to leave Europe’s border agency’s resources severely overstretched for the foreseeable future, regardless of how much cash is spent on recruiting additional border officers. Consequently, it is vital that lawmakers look for new ways to streamline border controls where possible.
EU politicians could look to Japan as a role model on how to streamline border controls with minimal staff. The country plans to roll out unmanned gates with facial recognition technology that check biometric passports. Placed at major airports across the country, these will be capable of automatically processing one person every 15 seconds, allowing officers to fast-track Japanese nationals while freeing up customs officers to focus on identifying people attempting to enter the country illegally – as well as counterterrorism.
But Japan is not alone in this approach. Similar smart gate systems are being installed at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 to supplement existing e-gates. The technology is already being deployed at some European airports as well, including the Lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport in France. While these systems might be of little use at the types of seaports identified as being at risk by Britain’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, an overall shift to “smart borders” would allow border enforcement agencies across the EU to redeploy staff to their weakest points of entry as pressure is relieved at commercial sea and airports.
Looking ahead, far-spread use of unmanned smart border systems equipped with biometric identification technologies will become all but indispensable. Some 7.6 billion passengers are expected to take to the skies globally by the mid-2030s, making it ever more important that more travelers are screened as quickly as possible. At the same time, as the number of passengers increases, so do the requirements for adequate security provisions. Customs officers are already facing growing pressures from people smugglers, illegal immigrants and the ever-present threat of a terror attack, and there are no indications that the safety environment will be improving any time soon.
With Asia and the Middle East as the frontrunners in biometrics use, Europe too is taking steps to employ biometrics more systematically. Last month, EU member states agreed on the establishment of a EU entry-exit system. This border-screening program is part of the EU’s Smart Border Initiative, designed to improve security in the bloc. In fact, unmanned facial recognition gates are already in use at some of Europe’s larger airports for holders of passports issued by European Economic Area countries and Switzerland. But with border control agencies across the EU struggling under the pressure of the migrant crisis, EU nations must move more quickly to free up vital resources everywhere they can.
While it is true that in some situations there are no substitutes for qualified customs officers working on the ground, the processing of the majority of air and sea passengers can and should be made as automated as possible. Unmanned biometric passport gates are designed to alert border staff to any issues with a passenger or their passport, meaning that officers can intervene where problems are identified. The efficiency gains that could be achieved make the widespread introduction of unmanned passport gates a no-brainer at a time when the bloc’s border security agencies are under unprecedented and mounting pressure.
Fortunately, Europe’s member states are well-placed to take advantage of technological advances and consolidation in the biometrics industry. In March, France’s Imprimerie Nationale Group agreed to buy Thales’ biometrics and identity management business, a move expected to boost the unit’s expertise in security solutions. A more capable biometrics industrial base is a crucial requirement for developing indigenous approaches to pressing security issues, and to establish Europe as a major global hub for digital and biometric know-how.
Faced with hitherto unknown strains on the EU’s security, the European capitals would do well to capitalize on this momentum in their business and political spheres. While cuts to front-line border control staff are unwelcome and will do little to address pressing issues, harnessing new technology is one of the best options policymakers have to prepare for the fact that the pressures on Europe’s borders are only likely to increase in the years to come.