Arms companies ‘rake in billions’ as Europe builds new walls

Study shows EU countries expected to spend billions of dollars to improve border security and expand border force.

Greece - Frontex
In September, new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for 10,000 border guards by 2024 [File: Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP]

Berlin, Germany – As Europe gears up for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the construction of new barriers to keep out migrants and refugees are netting billions of dollars for major corporations in the region, a new report has found.

European Union member states have spent at least 900 million euros ($1.08bn) on land borders since the end of the Cold War, according to the study coauthored by the Transnational Institute, Centre Dels and Dutch campaign group Stop Wapenhandel (Stop the Arms Trade).

The Iron Curtain may be a distant memory, but since the 1990s European states have constructed walls measuring 1,000km (621 miles), and conducted naval operations that cover a further 4,500km (2,796 miles) all while dispensing massive contracts to some of the world’s biggest arms companies.

Countries spent at least 676.4 million euros ($752m) on marine operations from 2006 to 2017 and almost one billion euros ($1.1bn) since 2000 on a “virtual wall”, consisting of information and surveillance networks designed to monitor the movement of people.

Many of the border walls, including wire fences erected by Hungary, Austria and Slovenia, were built in 2015 to address the huge increase in migrants and refugees entering Europe that year.

“In 2015 there was a lot of talk about the refugee crisis … and I think that’s when some kind of panic mode started and there’s been an over-drive of more border security, militarising the borders and building walls and fences ever since then,” Mark Akkerman, author of the report, told Al Jazeera.

Frontex border force

In its next budget, covering the period 2021-2027, the EU has made enormous financial commitments towards its borders, allocating 8.02 billion euros ($8.92bn) in spending on its Integrated Border Management Fund, 1.9 billion euros ($2.11bn) towards identity databases and border surveillance system Eurosur, and 11.27 billion euros ($12.52bn) to its rapidly-expanding border force, Frontex.

Greece - Frontex
Frontex currently uses officers provided by members states to police external borders, but the agency is recruiting 700 guards for Europe’s first uniformed service, to be deployed in 2021 [File: Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP]

Frontex currently uses officers provided by member states to police external borders, but the agency is recruiting 700 guards for Europe’s first uniformed service, to be deployed in 2021.

“The EU is neither an open door nor a fortress,” a spokesperson for the European Commission told Al Jazeera. “What we have been trying to do for the past years is to make the EU borders more secure and better managed. The EU’s aim is not to stop migration, but save lives and protect migrants.

“We continue to offer safe and legal pathways to those in need of international protection through resettlement. Since 2015, two successful EU resettlement programmes have helped over 63,000 of the most vulnerable find shelter in the EU.”

In September, new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for 10,000 guards by 2024.

The decision to further militarise Europe’s border regime comes amid widespread criticism by NGOs and human rights groups that the EU is refusing to live up to its responsibilities towards vulnerable refugees fleeing conflict and persecution.

The EU and its member states have all but ceased search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, while criminalising NGO rescue ships and funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept refugees and return them to squalid detention centres, where many are tortured or die of illness.

The crossing continues to be the world’s deadliest migrant route, claiming over 19,000 lives since 2013.

Reaping the rewards from Europe’s increasingly hardline approach to those attempting to enter include Europe’s biggest arms and security suppliers, like French firm Thales, Italy’s Leonardo and pan-European Airbus, all the beneficiaries of major contracts from the EU and its member states.

Thales produces radar and sensor equipment for ships used by Frontex and develops surveillance infrastructure for Eurosur; Airbus provides helicopters for land and sea patrols; and Leonardo supplies helicopters, drones and surveillance technology.

All form key parts of an aggressive and effective lobbying campaign to convince the EU that migration is primarily a humanitarian crisis but instead a security threat to the union which requires a militarised response, the report claims.

Thales, Airbus, and Leonardo either declined or did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The three companies, as well as the two umbrella groups they belong to, the European Organisation for Security (EOS) and Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), collectively met 256 times with the EU Commission in the last five years, spending about three million euros ($3.34m) on lobbying.

“In the field of border security, they’ve been very successful in pushing the narrative that migration is a security problem that should be seen as a threat and that states in the EU need the goods and services to deal with it,” said Akkerman.

Source: Al Jazeera