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Fortress Europe: The Billion Dollar Machine That Keeps Migrants at Bay

Part 1 of a two-part VICE News series examining the multi-billion dollar finances of European border control — how much gets spent and who pockets the cash?
Photo by Adriana Sapone/AP

When the horrors of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina hit TV screens in the early 1990s, the European public couldn't look the other way. Many countries accepted huge numbers of people fleeing the deadly conflict.

But by the time Kurdish refugees began fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime in 1997 the doors had closed — thanks in large part to the Schengen Agreement. The agreement relaxed border controls between certain European countries and created a single external border — facilitating and regulating free movement for many European citizens, but creating major barriers for migrants trying to get in.


"As internal border controls were removed," states an EU-made video on Schengen's history, "the need to strengthen external border controls became paramount". That policy is clearly overwhelmed by today's realities — with disastrous consequences for millions of refugees and migrants.

In August 2013, a team of 15 European journalists, statisticians and software developers began working on a project to analyze and map reliable, comprehensive data on the deaths of migrants seeking to enter Europe. Their findings are available at

This time, through sifting through the published data on EU programs and interviewing EU representatives, refugees and border officials, the Migrants' Files team has tracked some of the funds that flow through public and private hands as Europe struggles to contain the flood of migrants at its borders.

In a two-part VICE News series, we will examine the workings of the billion dollar anti-immigrant machine, following the money. Today, we look at some of the costs "Fortress Europe" imposes on the taxpayers living inside it and the people attempting to breach its walls. In Part 2, we will reveal the private companies influencing Europe's closed-door immigration policy and making millions of dollars in the process.

* * *

Part 1: Who pays what?


If you live, work and pay taxes in the EU, every year part of your salary goes towards maintaining its extensive border security system, characterized by border patrols, robots and high-tech intelligence networks. EU governments have spent billions of euros in the last decade on keeping would-be immigrants out, and they show no signs of slowing down.


From 2002 to 2013, 39 research and development programmes aimed at policing the borders were implemented by the EU and its affiliate the European Space Agency at a collective cost of 225 million euros ($256m). The projects included the development of fingerprint scanners, migrant-detecting drones and vehicles, satellite surveillance, and overground and underwater border patrol robots.

One particularly creative group of projects included the deceptively cute-sounding Sniffer, Sniffles, Snoopy and Doggies ("Detection of Olfactory Traces by orthoGonal Gas identification technologIES"), which developed technologically-enhanced robot noses to complement the work done by sniffer dogs, allowing border officers to "detect hidden persons and illegal substances" at border crossings.

But these experimental R&D projects are only the tip of the spending iceberg. Frontex is a large-scale EU-wide operation launched in 2004 to help secure much of Europe's border in line with the aims of the Schengen Agreement. Its stated "Missions and Tasks" involve providing training for border guards, facilitating deportations, and developing and maintaining IT systems to gather and share intelligence between member states in real time. Since its launch, Frontex has gobbled up over a billion euros of European taxpayers' money.

These costs are in turn vastly exceeded by the amounts spent by EU member states on policing their own borders. Britain spent £164 million ($260.9m) in 2013-2014 alone detaining people in its Immigration Removal Centres. Greece and Spain have spent over 70 million euros ($79.7m) on boats, drones, off-road vehicles and walls (just the walls surrounding the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, for example, cost almost ten million euros ($11.4m) a year to maintain). Italy has been particularly creative, coming up with a functioning arrangement whereby it pays elements of the Libyan coastguard to block refugees from leaving their territory en route to Italy. Since 2011, Italian taxpayers have paid over 17 million euros ($19.3m) to supply Libyan authorities with boats, training, night vision goggles, etc to track refugees and migrants.


While exact deportations data is hard to track down — only Belgium comprehensively records and makes public its deportations costs — the Migrants' Files team did find that the 28 member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland have together spent at least 11.3 billion euros ($12.8b) on deportations since 2000. A careful sift through the available data puts the cost of deportations in Europe at close to a billion euros per year.

You can find all data on EU and in-country programs here and here, and all deportations data here. Click here to see a visualization of European deportations for the year 2014.

Watch the VICE News documentary Storming Spain's Razor Wire Fence: Europe or Die (Episode 1)

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Refugees and migrants

The more Europe pays to keep people out, the more refugees and migrants pay to get in. Despite grandiose high-tech systems, the militarization of the Greek, Italian, Bulgarian and Spanish borders and the deportation of millions of migrants, migration to Europe's door has not abated. It has actually risen yet higher in 2015 as great swaths of the Middle East, southern Asia and Africa suffer from armed and violent power struggles and broken economies.

According to a report released yesterday by UNHCR, the United Nation's refugee agency, around 60 million people around the world are currently on the move, in search of refuge. 38.2 million of these are displaced within their own countries and 21.3 million have sought refuge abroad, a record since the UN started documenting numbers of displaced persons in the early 1950s. In all of 2014, some six hundred thousand people applied for asylum in Europe.


Since 2000, the best data suggests that some 1.2 million undocumented refugees and migrants have made the journey into Europe by sea and land — excluding air travel which is actually how the majority of migrants enter. Several million more entered by using fake passports or simply by overstaying their visas. The UN estimates Europe is currently host to 3.1 million refugees.

For undocumented refugees, passage is costly. Based on the number of "detections" reported by European Member States to Frontex and calculating the median of a number of sources who have talked about the prices of a crossing on a Frontex-defined route, The Migrants' Files estimates that over the past fifteen years, refugees have paid a staggering 16 billion euros ($18.2b) to travel to Europe.

You can find data on amounts spent by migrants on various crossings here.

Watch the VICE News documentary Death Boats to Greece (Part 1): Europe or Die (Episode 2)

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The project was financed in part by

The Migrants' Files team: Elaine Allaby, Michael Bauer, Ana Isabel Carvalho, Jakob Espersen, Daniele Grasso, Peter Grensund, Sylke Gruhnwald, Timo Grossenbacher, Markus Hametner, Kristian Holgersen, Alice Kohli, Ricardo Lafuente, Alexandre Léchenet, Jean-Marc Manach, Andrea Nelson Mauro, Jacopo Ottaviani, Adam Rodriques, Lise Møller Schilder, Julian Schmidli, Katerina Stavroula, Clotilde Lavergne-Bril and Niklas Svedberg.