New research finds that EU funds digital walls and police dogs at the EU’s borders

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New joint study by European refugee and migrant rights’ networks ECRE and PICUM finds that EU funds for border management are being used to build harmful infrastructure to control external borders, leading to human rights violations. Crucial information on the assessment of such programmes and how the Commission addressed risks of rights violations was only accessible for this research through freedom of information requests.

The study focuses on the Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI), which boasts a 6.2 billion euros budget for 2021 – 2027 to fund equipment, personnel capacity, infrastructures, and technology to be used at the EU’s external borders. Overall, member states have so far received 4 billion euros, an increase of 45% compared to the resources received under the Internal Security Fund – Borders & Visa for 2014 – 2020.

Despite the European Commission ruling out the possibility to use these funds to build fences and walls, we find that the BMVI can already support measures that may disproportionately impact the rights of migrants and refugees. For example, some countries are using BMVI funding for border surveillance technology to either complement or replace physical surveillance.

Key examples:

  • Estonia will spend 2 million euros on mobile remote sensing systems to increase border surveillance in areas “where it is not economically feasible to build a permanent infrastructure”.
  • Poland aims to “reduce the physical surveillance of the border” by investing in light-detecting systems on watch towers, alarm systems, portable thermal and night vision devices, and motion-activated security cameras at the borders with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
  • Croatia, Lithuania, Poland and Spain have acquired or are planning to acquire sniffer dogs to help border guards in patrolling borders and chasing and apprehending people who have crossed the border. In Croatia, dogs have already been used to threaten and bite migrants to push them back to the border.
  • Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovakia will invest in new vehicles equipped with integrated thermal imaging cameras, satellite communication, and x-ray identification systems, with off-road capabilities. In Lithuania, EU resources will allow the purchase of a stationary search detector for persons hidden in vehicles.
  • Croatia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Spain are planning to purchase vehicles for transporting migrants apprehended at the borders to police outposts and facilitate their expulsion to neighbouring countries. This practice constitutes “internal pushbacks” to other member states in informal procedures which have been found illegal by courts in ItalySlovenia and Austria.
  • Hungary’s strategy includes integrating artificial intelligence into vehicles for ground and air reconnaissance operations, potentially involving the employment of drones and other unpiloted vehicles. Greece and Estonia will also use drones and other unpiloted aircraft to expand their aerial surveillance capacity.
  • Despite continuously documented challenging conditions of reception centres, Greece is using BMVI resources to run the hotspots on the islands and Cyprus is using BMVI funding to operate the first reception centre in Pournara (just outside Nicosia). Greece is also the country receiving the largest proportion of BMVI resources in absolute terms, with more than 1 billion euros, despite multiple European Court of Human Rights condemnations and continuous reports of persisting degrading conditions, prison-like conditions and restriction of movements in the state-managed centres. Some of these concerns were confirmed by the European Commission’s decision to launch an infringement procedure against the reception conditions in the hotspots in January 2023.
  • The BMVI can also finance measures targeting support for people with vulnerabilities and international applicants. This may include procedures for the identification of vulnerable persons and unaccompanied children, information provision to and referral of people in need of international protection and victims of human trafficking, as well as the development of integrated child protection systems. However, the research found that 0.04% of the national programmes (around 1.3 million euros) is devoted to assistance and protection priorities (Croatia and Finland).

Monitoring and evaluation

Member states monitor the implementation of the BMVI programme through dedicated national monitoring committees, which should include experts in fundamental rights like civil society organisations, national human rights institutions, and potentially the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. But our research finds that civil society organisations are often underrepresented in monitoring committees and are not given the means to contribute meaningfully.

The Commission plays a key role in assessing the programmes’ compliance with fundamental rights. However, only thanks to requests for access to documents were we able to see that the Commission had questioned several national programmes during the programming phase, including on lack of access to asylum procedures in Greece, reception and detention conditions in Cyprus and Greece, allegations of pushbacks and discrimination issues in Poland, and deficiencies in judicial independence in Hungary.

What remains unclear is how the Commission came to eventually approve all programmes following murky exchanges with the member states in question. The European Parliament criticised this lack of transparency in the assessment process and initiated a lawsuit against the Commission concerning its decision to disburse over 10 billion euros of EU funds to Hungary, including BMVI funding.

Chiara Catelli, Policy Officer at ECRE and PICUM, said: “The European Commission’s refusal to allow financing of walls and fences is a fig leaf to cover other harmful measures that border funds can already support in member states. Our research finds that BMVI funding is used for an increasingly complex and digitalised system of border surveillance, forming an interconnected web of controls which harms people who come to the EU’s borders.”

“The EU and its member states must ensure that they respect the fundamental rights of people at the borders, including their protection from refoulement, inhuman or degrading treatment and right to life, as well as their often neglected right to access legal support and legal remedy.”