Migration control: EU agency spends € 1.5 billion on virtual borders

The launch of the new Entry/Exit System is delayed to September 2023, the Commission says the contracted companies are to blame.

Between 2014 and 2020 alone, Frontex and eu-LISA agencies spent a total of €1.9 billion on contracts for border surveillance and control systems. This figure is provided by the British civil rights organisation Statewatch, which analysed tenders on the European procurement platform. The money went mainly to large corporations from the IT sector and to arms companies.

Around a quarter of the money was spent on Frontex. After the so-called „migration crisis“, the EU border agency began setting up its own air surveillance service in 2016. This flight service with charter aircraft was supplemented last year by contracts for two large drones in the central Mediterranean. In the current budget, around one-sixth of the agency’s annual budget goes towards leasing the manned and unmanned aircraft.

Half a million migration-related searches in SIS II

Established in 2011, the Estonian Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems is responsible for all large EU databases in the area of justice and home affairs. The largest is the Schengen Information System (SIS II), which stores over half a million people with an obligation to leave the country or a re-entry ban following their deportation. In the area of migration control, eu-LISA also manages the Eurodac fingerprint system and the EU visa database.

Many of the contracts by eu-LISA, totalling €1.5 billion, are with groups such as Sopra Steria and Idemia, which are in charge of maintaining and developing SIS II, Eurodac and VIS. Most of the money, however, is going into the construction of an entirely new database, which is to be operational next year. In 2017, the Council adopted the Regulation on this Entry/Exit System (EES), which will record all border crossings of third-country nationals at the EU’s external borders.

As in SIS II, Eurodac and VIS, the new EES will store facial images in addition to fingerprints. In future, eu-LISA will centralise these biometric data in a new “ Common Identity Repository“, where they will be searchable with a “ matching system“. The facial recognition system alone costs more than € 300 million, and the companies Idemia and Sopra Steria also received this money. Another contract worth 140 million euros was awarded by eu-LISA to a consortium of the companies IBM, ATOS and the defence company Leonardo for further work on the EES.

Companies responsible for delay

Probably the EES is the most complex European information system since the introduction of the SIS in 1995. Both are based on a central system to which a liaison office is connected in each participating state. While all members can also use the biometric matching system, other services run on the central server. For example, each newly entered data record is checked for information that may already exist on this person, taking into account different spellings of the name.

The new Entry/Exit System was supposed to go into operation in May 2023, but this date has been postponed until at least autumn. eu-LISA sees most of the blame for this on the companies responsible for setting it up. This is according to the answer to a parliamentary question by MEP Patrick Breyer, because the disruption of „global supply chains“ as well as the pandemic had also led to difficulties, but these had been mastered by eu-LISA.

After EES comes ETIAS

However, the EES consortium had „substantially underestimated“ the complexity of the work to develop and implement the new information system. Among other things, the staff that the companies recruited for the programme did not have the „relevant expertise in key areas“. Also, coordination among consortium members was „not efficiant“. Finally, eu-LISA also criticises the „quality of the key deliverables“. IBM, ATOS and Leonardo were asked several times to remedy the deficiencies, but they did not react „in a timely and efficient manner“.

eu-LISA has now set the end of September 2023 as the date for the EES to become operational. Likewise, with some delay, the new European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) should then also be ready for use. All travellers entering the Schengen area for a visa-free short stay must register online via a form a few days before crossing the border. The information is checked automatically, after which the system issues either clearance or a contestable refusal of entry.

Image: eu-LISA (Crossed t 2020,CC BY-SA 4.0).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.