Over the past 15 years there has been a surge in E.U. spending on borders outside Europe. The impact of this funding on West Africa has received little attention until recently.
A new book by Philippe M. Frowd, an expert on the politics of borders, migration and security intervention, seeks to correct this. In “Security at the Borders: Transnational Practices and Technologies in West Africa,” Frowd details both the high politics and everyday culture clashes that have shaped European interventions and the way they have been received in countries like Senegal.
An assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Frowd coins the term “border work” to denote how everything from training to technology to migration deals work in combination with each other. Here in conversation with Refugees Deeply, he shares some of his main observations.
Refugees Deeply: You talk about tracing the “who” of border work in West Africa. Can you explain your findings?
Philippe Frowd: One of my book’s points is to use the term “border work” to identify how seemingly disparate practices such as negotiating migrant readmission agreements, deploying citizen identification technologies, funding border management projects and routine police cooperation actually combine. To try and make sense of what seems to be a bewildering but also often opaque set of actors operating at the intersection of these fields in West Africa specifically.
One of the most striking developments of the past 10-15 years has been the phenomenal growth of E.U. border security-related spending, much of it in “third countries,” mainly in Africa. This has gone hand in hand with a growing salience of “border security” on the part of many African states as a way of understanding flows at borders.
One of my main findings was the sheer diversity of actors involved in determining policies, experiences and practices of borders in the region. The African Union is the successor to the Organisation of African Unity which accepted Africa’s inherited borders in 1964, and the A.U. continues to provide assistance for demarcation of borders and dispute resolution. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is one of the guarantors of free movement in the region and generally pursues an ambitious agenda of greater harmonization (e.g., of visa policy).
Yet other actors, such as the E.U. and U.N. specialized agencies (such as the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime), tend to have agendas driven by primarily Western security concerns. Then there are the more immediately visible police and gendarmeries who directly enact border controls. More recently, the G5 Sahel force consistently invokes border security and transnational crime.
Beyond simply tracing who does what, there is tracing the interconnections and tensions between these different institutions. Looking sociologically at the diverse range of actors, we can see how knowledge is a crucial part of the equation: What is the vision of borders, security and migration each actor puts forward? On one hand, institutions like ECOWAS are focused on legal mobility rights while those such as Interpol envision mobility as a regulated, digitally legible practice. The range of actors who contribute to this border work is often a patchwork in which uneasy bedfellows co-exist. E.U. funding, for instance, goes to supporting free movement projects at the ECOWAS level but also to train and equip the security forces of states like Niger to crack down on irregular migration routes. West African borders are the product of the balance of forces between this range of competing visions.
Refugees Deeply: Can you talk us through the way in which border practices move between different regions. Is there a model for the process of emulation?
Frowd: Border security is made up of everyday routines but also of various digital and other technologies, both of which are potentially mobile. I point to a couple of ways that these tools of doing border security can travel: One of these is emulation of existing (often Western) methods and standards, but this also goes alongside what I describe as “pedagogy” and the role of exemplars.
“West African borders are the product of the balance of forces between this range of competing visions.”
All of these interact in some way. As an example, a border management project led by the IOM [International Organization for Migration] might include training sessions during which members of the local police and gendarmerie learn about key principles of border management illustrated by best practices from elsewhere. Emulation is the desired outcome of many of these trainings, which are the backbone of international border security assistance. The EUCAP Sahel missions, for example, put a heavy emphasis on training rather than equipping so there is a strong faith that mentalities matter more than equipment.
Equipment also matters and plays its part in shaping how border security works. Biometrics, which aim to verify identification using some kind of body measurement, require ways of reading the body and storing data about it. Senegal adopted, in one decade, a range of biometric technologies for national I.D. cards and controls at borders. There is a very obvious mobility of technology here (a Malaysian company providing e-Passport infrastructure, a Belgian company providing visa systems) but movement of border practices is also about ideas. The vision of biometrics as effective in the first place is one that I found, from interviews with Senegalese police commanders, was strongly tied to emulating ideals of modern and selective borders found elsewhere.
Refugees Deeply: In your work you identify some of the gaps between policy goals and to actual outcomes and practices. Can you talk us through the greatest discrepancies?
Frowd: Some of the discrepancies I found showed some interesting underlying factors. One of these was the shifting role of global private sector companies in frustrating public policy goals. Not through deliberate sabotage or state capture, but rather through the diverging incentives around doing border work. In the case of Senegal’s biometric systems, the state has been keen to make as coherent an infrastructure as possible, with connections between various elements such as biometric passport issuance, automated airport arrivals for holders of this passport and systems such as the national I.D. card. Given the need for private companies to compete based on technological advantage, rival systems made by rival companies could not interconnect and share data without sharing of valuable corporate information.
Another underlying factor for the discrepancies I point to is that, once again, the sociological dynamics of the people doing the border work come into play. Many border management projects bring together a diverse range of actors who can have competing visions of how security is to be performed and achieved. For instance the ways police and gendarmerie competed over border post data in Mauritania leading to separate databases. It can also happen at a larger scale through the lack of integration across the donor community, which leads to a huge amount of duplication.
Refugees Deeply: You spent a section of your book on Spanish-African police cooperation to show the limits of European knowledge and technology. You mention a clash of cultures, can you elaborate?
Frowd: This is a particularly salient point today for two reasons. First because we are hearing more elite (e.g., Frontex) discourse about the “reopening” of a migration route to Spain. Second because Spain itself is increasingly active in E.U. projects across the Sahel. My book tells some of the story of Spanish security ambitions in Africa. But these ambitions, and those of other Western partners, have hard limits. Some of these limits are quite straightforward: Climate is often a barrier to the functioning of surveillance technologies and some countries (like Mauritania) are harder to recruit international experts for if they cannot or do not bring their families along.
“The ambitions of experts to implicitly recreate aspects of European best practice are flawed.”
In terms of Spanish-African cooperation, much of the narrative about clashes of cultures comes down to perceptions. One of the elements of the clash is a temporal one, with Spanish security officials often considering local partners as existing at a completely different stage of progress.
More broadly in terms of the limits of knowledge itself, the ambitions of experts to implicitly recreate aspects of European best practice are flawed. Part of this form of border security knowledge involves supporting technological solutions to make African mobility more legible to states. This comes up against the reality that movement in West Africa is already quite free but highly informalized. European experts are well aware of this reality but seek to formalize these flows. A police expert I spoke to recently suggested co-located border posts, and many international funders are supportive of specific I.D. cards for residents of border regions. This is not to impede movement, but rather to rationalize it – in much the same way that common I.D. standards and databases underpin free movement within Europe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.