Possible Advantages of Developing a Risk-based Approach to Border Management

by Dr. Marco Stefan, Aurélie Heetman, Quentin Liger, Mirja Gutheil and Jacque Mallender

What are the solutions developed by the U.S. to curb irregular migration? How can new technologies and data analytics improve strategic decisions in the field of border control? How can the U.S. experience of implementing strategic shifts in border management inform the decision-making process in the European context? How can it be tailored to address the challenges currently posed by the migrant crisis in the EU?

These are just a few of the questions covered at Optimity Advisors’ event “Border control and border management: comparative perspectives and transferable lessons from the U.S. to Europe”, held in London on 1st June 2016. The event saw a selection of world-class migration and border security researchers, practitioners, and industry representatives debating critical issues such as the measurement and assessment of trends in mixed migratory flows, new ways of managing borders, effective approaches to tackling the smuggling of migrants and promoting better international migration governance. The event provided an occasion to build on the findings and complement the analysis conducted in the framework of the “Study on Smuggling of Migrants”, which Optimity Advisors recently carried out for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs.

Casting a transatlantic perspective on data analytics, border management policies, and enforcement strategies

Leading U.S. border security experts presented potential advantages of applying economic analysis to inform decision-making related to border control and to deploy both, personnel and technological resources to reduce risk and enhance border security. Linking macro indicators such as fluctuations in irregular migration flows to the U.S. with changes in U.S. labour and visa policies and border control strategies, the speakers made a case for an integrated approach including both, “at the border” and “behind the border” activities. The activities adopted included new and innovative actions such as deterrent communication campaigns in the migrant’s country of origin, dissuading potential irregular migrants from undertaking the journey to the U.S., coupled with law enforcement activities (including channelling the flow of irregular migrants to unbuilt areas and cooperation with the Mexican police). These innovative activities have been added to existing traditional methods based on means, intent and opportunity (the basis of the U.S.’ 2004 National Border Patrol Strategy). As a result, the 2012-16 strategy based on the three pillars of information, integration and rapid response adopted a risk-based approach in order to focus resources to areas of greatest risk at the border.

The subsequent discussion involved contributions from UK Home Office officials, academics, and stakeholders from the smart borders industry arena. In particular, the reduction of irregular migration at the U.S. Southwest land border was debated against the backdrop of the efforts currently undertaken by the EU and many of its Member States to address the current migration crisis, through inter alia disrupting smugglers networks, reducing risk, increasing border control, and regulating human mobility within an increasingly instable geopolitical and socioeconomic context.

The EU and U.S. contexts are very different, both in terms of the nature of the migratory flows and the physical landscape faced by irregular migrants to reach their destination. The nature of the mixed migratory flows towards the EU include a large number of asylum seekers and refugees from a range of different failed states or countries experiencing a civil war. These migrants attempt to enter the EU through different routes crossing different types of borders (land, air and sea), often risking their lives during the journey. On the other hand, the migration flows to the U.S. mainly consist of Mexican citizens (who are rarely considered refugees) crossing through the U.S. Southwestern land border, which is less risky.

Despite these differences, some of the latest U.S. technical, analytical and operational developments suggest that there is space for improvements in the ways in which information systems are currently used to implement EU migration and asylum law, and border management policies. The use of existing information collected by the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can inform measures taken in the EU. Relevant data, such as the flux of entry (through proxies such as the number of apprehensions, overstays etc.), and exit of irregular migrants (including removals, regularisation and exits) which are partially available in the U.S., help assess the stock of irregular migrants.

The space for improvement in EU border management and migration governance

Evidence-based analysis using data from the U.S. Border Patrol shows that the likelihood of irregular migration falls with an increase in Mexican expected wage, U.S. unemployment rate, border enforcement intensity, and consequence intensity. This conclusion highlights the need for an integrated approach to border management.

While the U.S. lessons cannot be simply transposed to the European context, the U.S. experts suggested that examples presented from the U.S. regarding the recording, monitoring and reporting of exhaustive data on irregular migration, and a more extensive use of biometrics and automated border controls could be key for the development of smarter border management systems and policies.

On the basis of the debate, Optimity Advisors identified the following points for further discussion and consideration related to the importance of developing and implementing a risk-based approach to border management and control “at the border”:

  • The analysis of data informs (and is informed by) strategic decisions in the field of border control and management. In Europe, EU Member States exchange and provide monthly statistics on detections of illegal border-crossing to Frontex. This helps the Agency in the preparation of its risk analysis. At the same time, the collection of a wider set of data (e.g. “know-flow” data; “got-aways”, “turn-backs”; recurrence of individual irregular crossing decisions; migration law enforcement rate, etc.), and the use of evidence-based measurement methodologies which allow to foresee changes in migratory trends (e.g. the repeat-trials method) used in the US, could enhance the impact of the Frontex Risk Analysis. Furthermore, systematic consultations with the European Commission could also be conducted to ensure, for instance, that financial support to border management capacity building promptly reflects changes on the ground.
  • The deployment of new border control and patrolling technologies to increase situational awareness, and operational capacity, requiring limited resources. For example, at the U.S. Southwest land border, installations (walls and fences) have been built to channel migrants in places where the terrain facilitates their detection (including with the use of drones). In Europe, advancements have been made to interconnect databases with biometrics information used for asylum and fight against crime and irregular migration purposes (e.g. EURODAC). Technological innovation has a great role to play in improving border management. On the one hand, it improves the collection of data on specific sections of borders, contributing to the constant monitoring of changes on the ground. On the other hand, information systems based on biometrics could speed up identification and registration, thus facilitating the processing of humanitarian claims.
  • Cooperation with third countries of origin and transit is key to develop reliable irregular migration measurement systems, but also to dissuade migrants from undertaking the journey and dismantle smugglers’ networks and hubs, and improve migrants’ understanding of the country of destination’s migration policies and laws.

Conclusions and way forward

Based on the use of different types of data collected (know-flow data), analytical methods used (the repeat-trials method), and new technologies (biometrics, drones, etc.), the risk based approach plays a crucial role in the development of the capacity of national/border authorities to systematically predict events and manage changes in irregular migration flows. In the medium-long term, the increased capacity to foresee changes and shifts in irregular migration routes and trends could translate into better managed borders. This could, in turn, benefit the legal entry and movement of people, goods, and services, and the overall national and regional security.

Despite the debate, participants did not agree on the overall effectiveness and replicability of the U.S. strategy and the extent to which new technologies and databases are in line with human rights. More generally, some participants questioned the replicability of lessons learned in the US due the differences in the border landscape and migration flows between the U.S. and the EU. The discussion highlighted the importance of building an evidence-base and take into account the overall context in order to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of border management. One of the biggest difficulties is to challenge public perceptions; despite the majority view of the U.S. public, the number of irregular migrants in the U.S. has in fact declined since 2007, and the number of Mexican citizens apprehended at the border has declined by over 85% since the year 2000.

Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection