It’s not every day you uncover an industry that connects family-run construction companies in Australia with remote islands in Oceania, and London bus drivers with Afghan teenagers trapped in Serbia, and former MI6 heads with subsistence farmers in Niger.
But such an industry does in fact exist, and it’s already huge and predicted to grow faster and bigger than ever before, to a total value of around $68 billion (around £48 billion) by 2025 – higher than the annual GDP of most countries. This industry is quite literally all around us, but we can’t always see it, which is interesting, because it can often see us.
The simplest name for this complicated, sprawling aspect of the global economy is probably the Border and Surveillance Industry, incorporating as it does the border, military, detention, tech, and finance industries that work together to weave a web over all the world, land and sea alike. The people involved are everywhere; some happily partake while others are forced to join. The Border and Surveillance Industry is slippery to define, but as it rises, it takes shape, coming into ever-sharper focus.
VICE World News untangled some of the emerging players: governments, corporations, asset management firms, military companies, consultancy firms, and tech companies, as well as the people most impacted by it all — people on the move, people fleeing for their lives or simply seeking a better future. In some places, the web cast by the Border and Surveillance Industry hangs so loosely you barely notice it. In others, it winds so tight it constricts your every move, holding you in place no matter how much you struggle. Some of the players are set to win at a scale hard to imagine, and some are bound to lose in ways too terrible to comprehend. So, who wins? And who loses?
“I remember at one stage I used to wear a starched shirt and starched shorts, all white, with black shoes and a pith helmet – a real colonialist,” Robin Murphy, founder of the construction company Canstruct, says with a chuckle as he fondly recalls his early days in 1960s Papua New Guinea in a promo video on the “About us” section of Canstruct’s website. “That’s what it was: We were colonialists at that time… it worked perfectly, the natives loved us, it was all very good.” Murphy narrates a promotional video for his company, over footage of local people clad in grass skirts building a bridge, and it seems things have come full circle for Canstruct, now headed up by three of his sons. The Australian company made a net profit of $101 million in the 2020 financial year, according to the corporate regulator. That’s up 45% from the previous period, coinciding with its management of detention centres on Nauru, an island state northeast of Papua New Guinea.
Among the wealthier nations of the world, Australia has the dubious honour of being the most aggressive in dealing with asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat. Detention is mandatory and indefinite, and in 2013, the government introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security operation aimed at combating maritime people-smuggling and protecting Australia’s borders”. Government vessels patrol Australia’s waters to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers, then turn them back to their country of departure in what they call a “tow-back”. Alternatively, the people on board are picked up and flown back to their countries without having their claims assessed, or they’re simply sent to an offshore processing facility like the ones on Nauru. These facilities – officially closed in 2018 – were nightmarish places marked by violence and neglect; indeed, those imprisoned killed or harmed themselves in disproportionately high numbers. In 2016 François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on migrant human rights, visited Nauru and called the conditions there "cruel, inhuman, and degrading," pointing out that "Australia would vehemently protest if its citizens were treated like this by other countries and especially if Australian children were treated like this." Since then, most people have been removed from Nauru. However, that hasn’t stopped the flow of money to the Murphy family, who helped to build the centres and took the reins in 2017 when the bad publicity overwhelmed Broadspectrum, the previous managers. The Guardian recently reported that the contract awarded to Canstruct was worth $8 million in October 2017 but has increased exponentially in the years since to a staggering $1.419 billion. As of April this year, it cost Australian taxpayers a little over $10,000 every day for each of the 115 people held on Nauru.
In an email to VICE World News, a Canstruct spokesperson said, “Canstruct are unable to comment on these matters as these are issues for the federal government. We suggest you talk to the department in Canberra.”
Despite the huge cost to taxpayers and the anguish caused to refugees and their families, the Australian model of outsourcing border control seems irresistible to governments of other wealthy countries. Most recently the UK announced it was considering offshore detention plans of its own. Seeking asylum is legal, in fact it’s a human right, one protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it’s important to note that if you want to claim asylum, you have to be in the country you’re claiming it from. One way that EU member states outsource their borders is known as “border externalisation”. Using money and technology they move their borders, sometimes by thousands of miles, to meet the people who want to cross them and stop them there and then. The best-known example of this is the now-collapsed deal the EU made with Turkey in 2016, to take back migrants who had managed to get to Greece in exchange for 6 billion euros and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The result, if not the stated goal, of many EU policies is to prevent people from requesting the asylum they may well be entitled to. In reaction to the so-called “refugee crisis” at European borders, the EU brokered deals with countries in Africa, too, namely Libya and Niger. Libya continues to receive financial and political support from Europe despite mounting evidence of brutality, enslavement, torture, forced disappearance, and death of migrants trapped there.
Niger, a nation in the Sahara bordered by seven others, has long been a transitory place where migrants pass through on their way to Europe. As part of the EU’s Migration Partnership Framework “to curb the flow of irregular migrants” and in tandem with a vast amount of development aid ($1 billion over three years), the “EU support will also sustain good governance efforts, the reform of the country's security and justice systems, as well as the fight against irregular migration, trafficking and smuggling.” This effectively means that migration through much of the region has now been criminalised. On the ground, it means European borders now lie deep inside the African continent. Similarly, US border outposts are pushed down into Mexico and Central America. Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee say that several hundred US-bound migrants were rounded up in Guatemala and returned to Honduras in January of 2020 by US Customs and Border Protection agents, in what they note was “an unauthorised operation”.
These policies do not stop people who are desperate to flee; they force them to make ever more dangerous journeys through desert and scrubland.
In Europe, Human Rights Watch has seen mounting evidence of often violent pushbacks at borders, including in Croatia, Cyprus, France, and Greece. Countries hoping to join the EU are incentivised to detain people – in fact in some cases, their future membership depends upon it. One such country is Serbia, where VICE World News spoke to a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan who’s been sleeping under a railway bridge in Belgrade. Abdul (not his real name) is one of those playing “the game,” the term many young migrants use for trying to cross borders in the Balkans. Recently he encountered a drone on the Romanian border while trying to cross from Serbia with a small group. “Everywhere crossing the border in Romania there is a drone camera,” he said. “We are going on ‘the game’ and they are upping the drone camera. After ten minutes or so, they are getting us and pushing us back. It sounds like a car, you know, not like an airplane; it is a slow sound. And it has two lights, a red light which is flashing on and off.” Abdul said everyone knows that once the drone has seen them, the police will arrive within minutes. “You have the police arriving, and then they are taking everything — money, phones, everything.”
There has been a continuous stream of reports of police violence at borders in the Balkans, with many people robbed of their money, phones, and passports by various police forces. “They take our money and our things and our sleeping bags also,” Abdul said. He has been trying to cross the border for two months, hoping to somehow make it to France. “I have a family back in Afghanistan and it’s not safe for them. I want to have a safe future and for my family to be safe.”
Simon Campbell and his team from the Border Violence Monitoring Network have been collecting testimonies for years from people who’ve been brutalised on the move across Europe, including accounts of beatings, forced undressings, threats with firearms, and even mock executions. He told VICE World News that technology is increasingly implicated in the violence at European borders. “Surveillance technologies like drones, aircraft, and thermal imaging cameras are all part of the armoury being used at the EU external border,” he said. “Though they are not direct weapons themselves, they play a key role in the apprehension of transit groups and therefore have an intrinsic link with the torture carried out by the law enforcement.”
War and other forms of violence, increasing climate chaos, and grinding poverty all mean there are more people on the move now than at any time since World War II. But the story of migrants as told by those safely living in wealthier, more peaceful countries has become a story of their own fears, of keeping themselves safe and their borders secure. This is despite any evidence that refugees or economic migrants increase the level of criminality in the communities they move to. Counter to the official and very public commitments to human rights they espouse, and regardless of the many thousands of men, women and children who die annually trying to reach safety, the US, the UK, Europe, and Australia pull that safety further away with every passing year. The security narrative is a lucrative one, driving enormous profits in the Border and Surveillance Industry. There have never been as many borders and walls built to keep people out, including towering fences, fleets of drones, and centralised biometric databases used to monitor and track migrants. That’s one thing Abdul has managed to avoid: “No one has taken my fingerprints, from Afghanistan until here, I’m safe,” he said.
It really just means he’s not yet in a European database that could cause his deportation down the line, even if he does reach France. That’s what is facing 29-year-old Ali (not his real name), along with his wife and their baby. The young Syrian family was stopped in Slovenia as they tried to walk through a village near the border with Austria. It’s a day he still regrets.
“It was our mistake to walk in the daytime,” he said.“It was just two kilometres [to the border], but we walked in the day because we were very hungry and we had no milk or water.” Officers picked them up and took them to the police station. “They then took us to the immigration station and they took our fingerprints. They took ten fingerprints; it’s now on the Eurodac,” he said, referring to the EU fingerprint database for asylum seekers. Ali and his family made it to Germany, but they face issues with their asylum application because of those fingerprints, which link them to Slovenia.
The UN special rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, professor E. Tendayi Achiume, has been watching the confluence of interests among the border security, technology, and finance industries. "Governments, non-state actors, and companies are developing and deploying emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous, and racially discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context,” she told VICE World News. “The investors facilitating these technological developments must be held to account for propping up these tools of control, and for essentially profiting from the abuse of displaced populations — abuse that sometimes even results in death”.
So who are the corporations and investors profiting from this industry that’s at best ethically dubious and at worst deadly? A new report from the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with Stop Wapenhandel, an anti-arms trade organisation based in the Netherlands, has identified many of the companies that provide services like border security (including monitoring, surveillance, walls and fences), biometrics and smart borders, migrant detention facilities, deportation services, and audit and consultancy services. Many of the company names are familiar: Accenture, Airbus, Booz Allen Hamilton, Classic Air Charter, Cobham, CoreCivic, Deloitte, Elbit, Eurasylum, G4S, GEO Group, IBM, IDEMIA, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Mitie, Palantir, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Serco, Sopra Steria, Thales, Thomson Reuters, and Unisys. It works like this: The markets for military and border control procurement are characterised by massively capital-intensive investments and contracts that wouldn’t be possible without the involvement of financial actors. Capital Research and Management (part of the Capital Group) has shares in arms giants Airbus and Lockheed Martin, and State Street Global Advisors owns over 15% of Lockheed Martin shares as well as shares in six other companies. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management company, is a major shareholder in 11 border and surveillance industry companies.
Every year the billionaire CEO of BlackRock, Larry Fink, sends out an advice letter that the financial world pays close attention to. BlackRock has monetised one of this century’s defining human rights issues: the right to move. Considering this investment in detaining migrants, it’s ironic that so many pension funds for transport workers are managed by BlackRock, including Transport for London — which runs the London Underground — and the UK regulator the Civil Aviation Authority.
The Vanguard Group owns shares in 15 of the 17 companies, including in multinational technology company IBM, one of the largest contractors for US Customs and Border Patrol, with 145 contracts for a total value of $1.74 billion between 2008 and 2019, mainly for technological infrastructure and support. In May 2016, IBM was the lead sponsor of the EU Security, Migration and Borders Conference in Brussels, organised by Forum Europe and RAND Europe, when IBM announced its development of “self- learning machines to help in the asylum decision-making process” by assisting in profiling people asking for international protection. Petra Molnar, the associate director of the Refugee Law Lab, told VICE World News that technology is just the latest tool in an ancient toolbox, along with the narrative that migrants are inherently a threat. “Migrants are always to be controlled, they are dangerous, there are floods of them coming — this is the messaging we see everywhere. And now through technology, it works again to dehumanise the person, to strip them of their dignity and complexity.” Looking at the Vanguard Group’s Instagram account featuring Black actors portraying a smiling grandfather baking with his granddaughter, their investment practices seem contradictory, as does the company statement on human rights: “While ultimately our judgment on these issues and actions with respect to specific companies may differ from that of special interest groups and other institutions, we believe our approach effectively integrates our commitment to corporate responsibility and our fiduciary obligations.”
How does the small amount of money deducted from a London tube driver’s paycheck each month for their pension fund end up flowing through Blackrock and on into the private prison company GEO Group to bankroll the detention of asylum-seeking children in Texas? Or on to Chinese technology company Hikvision to fund facial-recognition software to track the persecuted Uyghurs in Xinjiang, even as British MPs declare that China is committing genocide? In a statement to VICE World News, Padmesh Shukla, the head of investments at Transport for London’s pension fund, said: “BlackRock manages the Fund’s passive investments only, which in simple terms means they merely replicate in a very mechanistic way a market benchmark created by third-party providers such as MSCI and FTSE. There is no active decision on their part to exclude or include a specific sector or a company. The key considerations for the Trustees in this instance is their ability to recreate the market indices at the lowest cost and minimum tracking error and then to also ensure their voting and engagement policies are robust. I can assure you the Trustees challenge all its managers, including BlackRock, to continue to improve their fiduciary practices.” Contacted by VICE World News, a BlackRock spokesperson declined to comment.
Transport for London’s pension fund trustees are far from alone. Three large European arms companies active in the border security market — Airbus, Thales and Leonardo — are partly owned by the governments of the countries where they’re headquartered, so just by paying taxes many of us are enriching the Border and Surveillance Industry. Besides knowing we’re connected, however distantly, to 17-year-old Abdul being stalked by drones and manhandled by the Serbian police, we need to consider other aspects of this industry as it grows up all around us. “Travellers today expect seamless movement across borders, which can be achieved only through intelligent automation driven by digital technologies,” said James Canham, the managing director of border services at Accenture, in an interview with Defense and Security Systems International. “Digital has a core role to play for border agencies, from the point of view of security and facilitation.” On Twitter, Canham’s location is marked “global”, which is probably true — for wealthy Western people, there really are no borders, just as there are no borders for capital or technology. For many, though, technology at the border does not mean freedom. It means tracking and it means captivity and it means deportation. And that should concern everyone, as Molnar, of the Refugee Law Lab, points out. There are human rights implications of using AI and automated decision-making and migration management technology on people, because this technology is proven to perpetuate systemic racism. And it can be insidious, she says: “What we are seeing time and again is that these testing grounds are also about normalising this technology. Yes, for now it’s on the most vulnerable, but then this becomes normal in the daily administration of public life.” VICE World News reached out to Canham for this article but received no response.
People on the move, particularly refugees, have been used to normalise and perfect new technology for some years now. In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, almost all of the refugees living there must have their irises scanned every time they buy food or take out cash in the camp. The advantage for them is less time waiting, and for the UNHCR’s data-collection purposes, iris scans are a way to avoid fraud and keep track of transactions. A spokesperson for IrisGuard, the company that creates and sells the technology and provides technical support to the buyers, told VICE World News: “We used to provide our technology for security/border control a number of years ago. However, since 2013, our focus has been the humanitarian aid sector.”
In 2017 the merchant bankers Goldman Sachs invested an undisclosed sum in IrisGuard. Among the company’s other partnerships is another familiar name:Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6.. In the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, his name came up in the context of his report on possible weapons of mass destruction prior to the war. "Sir Richard Dearlove's personal intervention, and its urgency, gave added weight to a report that had not been properly evaluated and would have coloured the perception of ministers and senior officials. The report should have been treated with caution," the inquiry notes. As it turns out, Dearlove was wrong and acting on false information given by a source in Iraq that the report noted was possibly inspired by the Michael Bay-directed movie The Rock. It would be comical if the consequences hadn’t been so deadly. Representatives for Dearlove acknowledged requests for comment from VICE World News but ultimately did not respond. Dearlove, who sat on IrisGuard’s advisory board from the company’s early days until 2017, now travels freely around the world for lucrative public speaking engagements. The Border and Surveillance Industry is a shadowy and far-off threat to many of us, a punishing and terrible one for some, but for a few, it’s pure gold.
Additional reporting by Katy Fallon.
Full photo credit for main image collage: Top right: People from Morocco attempt to cross into Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta in May 2021. Photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images. Bottom left: A young male attempts to climb over a border fence in Ceuta, May 2021. Photo: ANTONIO SEMPERE/AFP via Getty Images. Bottom right: A drone operated by French police takes off near the city of Calais in April 2019. Photo: DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images.