The rise of the border and surveillance industry and why you should be concerned

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Rightwing politicians and companies—who have financial incentives to see the border and surveillance industry grow – have framed migration as a security threat in their statements and policy briefs.

“Migration has been portrayed, in the EU and more generally in the Global North, as a threat to ‘our’ economic prosperity, cultural identity and ‘values’,” said Davitti. “Defining migrants’ arrivals as a security threat requires security answers, which the border and surveillance industry is of course best placed to provide with services it offers.”

The framing of migration as a security problem has resulted in the dramatic growth of the border and surveillance industry over the last decade, fuelled by booming budgets for border and immigration control. In the United States alone, budgets for borders increased by more than 6,000% since 1980, according to TNI.

The EU has plans to spend about three times more on border security and control in its new seven-year budget than its previous one. And by 2025, the global border security market is predicted to grow by between 7.2% and 8.6%, reaching a total of $65-68 billion.

According to TNI’s report, the border and surveillance industry is expanding in five key sectors: border security (more equipment and technologies that surveil and patrol borders to deter people from crossing them); biometrics (new technologies for fingerprints, iris scans or social media tracking); advisory and audit services (that lobby governments to adopt harsher border policies); and migrant detention and deportation.

“Military and security companies and their lobby organisations are very influential in shaping border and migration policies,” said Mark Akkerman, lead author of TNI’s report. “Representatives of these industries present themselves as experts on these issues and are embraced as such by authorities.”

The path forward

Displaced people are suffering the consequences of the expanding border and surveillance industry, whether they are being monitored at the border by overhead drones or through social media. “The militarisation of borders has led to more violence against migrants and has pushed them to more dangerous migration routes,” said Akkerman. “There have also been many reports about human rights violations in migrant detention and during deportations.”

The lack of accessible information about these companies’ roles in the border and surveillance industry makes it harder to hold them accountable. “These contracts are often kept secret and governments resist sharing them,” said Antonella Napolitano, a policy officer at Privacy International. “It is a system that lacks oversight and ultimately, accountability.”

Even if the links between these companies and migrant abuse was clearer, experts say it would still be hard to hold private actors accountable. Private companies do not have the same obligations to protect, respect and fulfil human rights as states, making it extremely difficult to hold them responsible for any abuses they may commit.

Legally speaking, it would also be challenging to hold states accountable for outsourcing border violence to the private sector. As a result, experts say the best way forward is to demand that investment companies divest pensions, individuals’ savings and university endowments from companies that perpetuate migrant and refugee abuse.

“Companies, especially those in the military and [border] security field, are depending on money from investors to keep their business running,” said Akkerman. “Divestment would make it more difficult for them to keep going.”

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