DSEI: A Supermarket for state surveillance and border wars

This article was written by Shoal Collective for Border Flashpoint News. Please circulate and re-post.


As borders are increasingly militarised and their operation privatised, migration, more than ever before, is also an anti-militarist struggle.


It took Stephen* two years to get to the UK. The journey began in his home country of Sudan, crossing through Libya, Italy, France and Belgium before reaching the UK where he is applying to stay. Like thousands of others, he spent several months in France and Belgium before eventually crossing the UK border, earlier this year, in the back of a van.

Stephen had been through several months of failed attempts before this: Being discovered in Calais after several hours cramped in the back of a van from Belgium with a group of four or five others, then being stuck in France, getting the money together to travel back to Belgium and try again.

“If you have a good luck you can pass; if you don’t, the security check will take you out,” he explains. “First they use dogs, and if the dogs indicate there’s something, they will check it for themselves… If they can’t find anything easily they have to take the truck to the computer scanner… It’s quite scary.”

He says police patrols in Calais and elsewhere operate day and night, with officers carrying tasers and pepper spray. “They are using it easy – they don’t care what is going to happen, it doesn’t matter for them,” he says. “They don’t care if you die, if you don’t, if you’re injured…”

Borders are becoming increasingly militarised and unsafe places particularly for people like Stephen, who are trying to cross them undocumented. The security measures he describes are only the visible ones. As well as the X-ray machine, there’s a monitor that can detect heartbeats, and another to detect raised levels of carbon dioxide from people breathing inside the lorries.

Migrants and smugglers go to great lengths to avoid detection by such machines such as travelling in airtight lorry containers and risking death by asphyxiation, as happened to 15 year old Masud from Afghanistan in early 2016; 71 men, women and children in 2015, and 58 people from China in 2000.

The entire UK border zone at Calais is surrounded by floodlights, 2.5 miles of nine-feet high fencing, a “comprehensive network of surveillance cameras“, including thermal imaging cameras, and drones. As well as the tasers and pepper spray described by Stephen, border guards at Calais are now equipped with guns, batons and body armour.

Private companies producing and developing the technology used at borders are making money from the perceived threat of an ‘invasion’ of refugees in Europe and the very real suffering of people. Many of the companies developing and promoting equipment, surveillance technologies and the IT infrastructure to track people on the move are often among the world’s biggest arms companies.

These defence giants not only profit from the wars and state oppression that cause people to flee their homes, but also from the high-tech surveillance equipment that tracks them, the violence that greets them, and the biometric systems that register them on arrival.

The biannual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) trade fair is a chance for these companies to showcase their work and products. From 12-15 September 2017, DSEI will host over 1,600 companies, from across the defence and security sector industries, at the ExCeL centre in London Docklands. It’s set to attract over 34,000 visitors, including Defence Ministers, international military representatives and private sector companies. Many of the companies who profit from borders will be represented – part of a border security market estimated at €15 billion in 2015 and predicted to rise to €29 billion by 2022.

All across Europe there has been an increasingly militarised response to migration by the European Union. Border Wars, a 2016 report from the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Stop Wapenhandel puts the total EU funding for member state border security measures at €4.5 billion between 2004 and 2020.

Technologies used against migrants include monitoring towers, cameras, land radars and wireless telecommunication, infra-red surveillance, high-tech fences, identification systems, immigration databases, drones, even warships.

The European border security industry is dominated by major arms companies, including DSEI exhibitors Thales, Safran and BAE Systemsthe third largest arms company in the world – who in 2002 won a £7.6 million contract from Romania to supply equipment used in tightening the border, including Mobile Surveillance Vehicles (MSVs), hand-held thermal imagers and night vision binoculars.

Increased surveillance technology at borders is forcing undocumented migrants everywhere to take greater and greater risks. This year over 2,400 people have already lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Over 5,000 people died in 2016.

The numbers are growing, but the routes and causes of death have changed. Starting from the summer of 2015 – the “long summer of migration” – huge numbers of people crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, taking the Balkan Route through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia or Hungary, then into Austria and Germany, or on to Nordic countries such as Sweden, where Syrian citizens were at one time almost guaranteed refugee status.

During the first few weeks of January 2016, more than 30,000 people successfully crossed the Aegean to Greece, in comparison to nearly 1,500 in the whole of January 2015.

But one by one, countries along the Balkan Route began to shut their borders, even building physical walls in some cases, and criminalising migration in increasingly creative ways. After Turkey was given €3 billion to keep migrants away from EU borders, European border army FRONTEX were deployed to some of the Greek islands, and NATO warships began patrolling the Eastern Med, this stopped being the busiest route into Europe, and people began making their way to Libya instead.

Libya is now an incredibly dangerous place as rival militias compete for power. Black Africans are commonly captured and put into makeshift camps by these gangs, often in starving, torturous, and extremely poor conditions. The gangs know that the European Union likes to export its border management to external “third countries”, where monitoring of human rights conditions are harder, and trafficking people is increasingly lucrative. The European Union has been training the Libyan Coastguard and supplied it with €200 million, but rather than rescuing people, they are carrying out illegal push-backs and armed violence against migrants. Now ISIS is also active in Libya, the situation is even worse.

In 2017, nearly all deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean have been people using the Central Mediterranean route, trying to cross between Libya and Italy. NATO has now also deployed warships there as part of ‘Operation Sea Guardian’.

The British government has thrown millions at the Calais border, which seems on its way to full privatisation. The death toll is rising along with the amount of money thrown at the border, with a growing number of deaths each year. An October 2016 report from the Calais Research Network documented 40 companies benefiting from this situation, many of whom will be exhibiting at DSEI:

  • Thales Described as, “one of the top-earning companies in the border industry”, the French multinational was commissioned to supply a surveillance and access control system at Calais in 2010. In 2014 they were awarded a two year £3.8 million contract from the UK Home Office to provide a system to encrypt biometric and biographic data for Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) cards for non-EU foreigners.
  • The Chemring Group supplied PMMWI (Passive Millimeter-Wave Imaging) and vehicle scanning. Roke Manor Research, part of Chemring Group, developed the Pandora lorry scanning system, trialled in Calais.
  • FLIR Systems has supplied thermal imaging cameras for use in Calais during the night or in fog, rain or snow when CCTV cameras can’t provide a clear image.
  • L3 Technologies supplied x-ray scanning equipment at Calais.

Opposing DSEI is one way to act in solidarity with migrants. During the ‘Free Movement for People, Not Weapons’ day of action against DSEI 2015, a member of Black Dissidents said as part of a rousing speech:

“If countries are embroiled in a western-fuelled armed conflict, people will flee. They will flee to safer places. European governments have ensured that if they arrive here, they will not be safe. They will suffer the risk of deportations, detention centres, or raids. They will be scrutinised on the basis of their stories, or their age. While the privileged sell their weapons, and move freely, trans people are detained, queer people have to prove their sexuality, deaths in detention occur in parallel to deaths in custody, and privatisation of services by global security firms such as G4S, or Serco are left unaccountable with impunity.”

Join the week of action to Stop the Arms Fair at London’s Docklands from 4-11 September, 2017. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition is made up of diverse groups and individuals who oppose the fair. The coalition supports groups using a diversity of different tatics to oppose the fair. It is open for new people and new movements to get involved.

Thursday 7 September’s day of action has the theme ‘Solidarity Without Borders‘ making the links between the arms and security industry. There are also events going on across the UK, in the lead up to DSEI and during the event.


*name changed to protect his identity

By Amy Hall and Sara Woods of Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of independent writers and researchers, writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.