Border security: Getting back to basics

Tony Smith, global border security consultant and former director general of the UK Border Force, looks at the pressures upon our border agencies and how how technology is both aiding and challenging border security efforts within the UK

A lot has been said and written about border security over the past 18 months. The horrendous attacks in Paris, Brussels and Berlin have reminded us that a primary function of border control is to protect the indigenous population from harm. Yet time after time we see fundamental flaws in border security which have allowed terrorists to travel unchallenged across international borders; and around the borderless Schengen zone, often with no identity papers and sometimes with lethal weapons.

So what can be done? Are modern day border controls fit for purpose? How can we continue to promote free travel and trade – and all the good things that globalisation brings – whilst at the same time protecting our people from harm?

There is no doubt that pressures upon our border agencies are greater than ever before. With predictions of a doubling in global air traffic over the next 20 years, and a quadrupling in the amount of freight by 2050, volume continues to rise inexorably. Civil war and unrest in many parts of the world means that a record 65 million people have now fled their homes, in search of refuge elsewhere. The decision of the British people to leave the European Union after 50 years – based significantly around fears of immigration and population growth – has led to significant turmoil about the future of Schengen, the Customs Union and the EU itself. The presidential election in the United States was won largely on a nationalist philosophy; with promises of much tougher border controls and enforcement than ever before. And meanwhile terrorist attacks of various size and complexion continue to threaten our way of life.

Of course, there is no easy answer to any of this. But there are lessons we can learn from the past; indeed lessons that we ignore at our peril. Having been in leadership roles in government during times of severe crisis, I can see some substantial parallels between the challenges facing us today and those we have faced before. Having spent a good deal of time attending expert conferences and events around the globe over the past two years, I know full well that modern day border management demands that we must make best use of all the assets, people, technology and intelligence at our disposal to deliver the three fundamental principles of border management.

Adopting strong strategies
Firstly, we need to espouse the multiple borders strategy wherever and whenever we can. Simply put, this means checking everyone and everything we can – and as thoroughly as we can – at the earliest possible point in the journey. By working together to build systems and processes to share and analyse data in advance of travel. Not just between the control agencies themselves – but also with the airlines, the shipping companies, the airport authorities, the freight companies and so on. With the use of better and smarter technology, this is much more achievable these days than it was in the past.

Secondly, we need a proper strategy for managing identity. This means that we must embrace the sensible and proportionate use of biometrics in the traveller continuum. Developments in passport technology – and especially the capacity to store biometric and biographic data on machine readable chips – opens up a vast array of opportunities for border control that were also not available in the past. Increasingly, more and more countries are demanding biometrics from travellers in their visa, border and immigration systems. Capturing and verifying an identity from the outset – and being able to verify it at each stage of the journey, and even in country for entitlement purposes – provides huge opportunities to facilitate genuine travel whilst at the same time deterring unlawful, harmful or illegitimate travel. Which is ultimately the vision for all of us.

And thirdly, countries must embrace the principles of integrated border management. This was a major failure identified in reports about the worst terrorist attacks in history. The 9/11 report identified that as many as 15 of the 19 hijackers were potentially vulnerable to interception by border authorities. Analysing their characteristic travel documents and travel patterns could have allowed authorities to intercept four to 15 hijackers; and more effective use of information available in U.S. government databases could have identified up to three hijackers. Yet in the Paris attacks over 14 years later, at least seven of the attackers were believed to have travelled to Syria to fight for ISL and return undetected. All the attackers were known to the police – some for crime, some for terrorism, some for both. And two of the attackers were fingerprinted at the Greek border six weeks earlier, posing as refugees in the migrant crisis.

Border control and home grown terrorism
Integrated border management doesn’t take place just at the border. It demands a clear and consistent strategy for joint agency working - both at national and international level - between immigration, customs, police, military and security sectors who are united behind a common purpose to protect the Homeland.

Following the attacks on the London underground system on 7/7 the UK government committed its departments and agencies to the CONTEST strategy, recognising that border control was not just about foreign fighters, but also about the enemy within. The 7/7 terrorists had been undertaking training exercises for Al Qaeda; but because they were British nationals we had not been focusing upon their travel patterns. Since then there has been very close collaboration between the security services, the police and the UK Border Force to identify home grown terrorists and to track their movements. Something that has effectively deterred terrorist attacks in the UK ever since, including during the London 2012 Olympics. Most of the Paris attackers lived in residential areas in Paris and Brussels which were known to be breeding grounds for ISIL; yet information about their movements was not shared either at national or international level.

The recent case of the Berlin attacker on the Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 only serves to illustrate the point. Anis Amri was a convicted criminal before he even arrived in Italy, but was nonetheless admitted. Following conviction of a serious offence in Italy he was released without deportation; and despite his criminal record he was allowed to travel freely to Germany. Once there he registered with the authorities and continued to operate in criminal circles; and was even identified as a security threat. Yet despite being liable to deportation he remained at liberty and was able not just to perpetrate this attack but also to escape the scene and travel across EU borders – despite a manhunt – with no identity papers and a gun in his bag. We can continue the political rhetoric about Schengen and free movement; but the fact is that even Schengen countries can (and do) erect internal border controls at times of crisis. The fact that they failed to do so on this occasion continues to raise questions about the capability of control agencies to track and intercept terrorists – both before and after the fact.

To be fair, the EU Commission has now recognised the need for a much greater integration of enforcement systems under the Smart Borders programme; and the value of entry/exit checks (and even biometric checks) at the external frontier in future. But it still has some way to go to demonstrate that it is fully embracing the fundamental principles of multiple borders, identity management and integrated border management within the Union itself.

Encouraging collaboration
Of course, the most important ingredient in all this is collaboration. Border leaders - and the politicians that govern them - need to look outwards for support. Not just to other countries - but also to intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations working in this area; to all of the stakeholders in the travel and transportation business; and to the world of technology, where many of the tools to deliver the aforementioned principles are developed. This means getting back to basics. Then – and only then – will we they be able to face up to the significant challenges that lie ahead.

Tony Smith retired as director general of the UK Border Force after 40 years’ service with the UK Home Office. He is now a global border security consultant; managing director of Fortinus Global Ltd; and deputy director general at BORDERPOL.

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