While a lot of tasks performed by people in border management must not be replaced by Artificial Intelligence, it is important to use new and emerging technologies to prepare for those tasks, emphasizes Berndt Körner, Deputy Executive Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex.
How does European Border and Coast Guard Agency work, and what’s its exact role?
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency – Frontex supports EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries in the management of EU’s external borders and fighting cross-border crime.
Among its many tasks, the agency coordinates the deployment of border and coast guards, along with boats, airplanes, patrol cars and other equipment, to EU countries facing exceptional pressure at their external borders. Every week we roughly have between 1,300 – 1,800 border and coast guard officers deployed around the EU.
Frontex is expected to implement European Integrated Border Management with a view to managing the crossing of the external borders of the European Union efficiently. This includes addressing migratory challenges and potential future threats, thereby ensuring a high level of internal security – all this in full respect for fundamental rights.
As an agency we currently have roughly 700 staff, many of them engaged in situational awareness and monitoring. We are are also engaged in training (working on common curricula and delivering basic and advanced training as well as the European Joint Masters in Strategic Border Management). And we also pay great attention on research and innovation.
As an agency we are currently again approaching a period of change, as in autumn 2019 we can expect the entry into force of a new Regulation, which will bring us again a whole series of new tasks and a huge up-scaling of staff. At the end of this process we will have a headcount of 10,000. Roughly 3,000 will belong to the agency and the remaining 7,000 will be committed long-term or short-term by the Member States.
Is the migration problem still as bad as it was in 2016?
No. I can say that through many different measures we have collectively managed to improve the situation. We have increased our operational efforts, we have improved our cross border cooperation and we have also enhanced our return capacities for persons, who – at the end of all processes – are found not to have the right to stay within the European Union.
Overall, the total for the first eight months of 2019 was 26% lower than a year ago at around 68 700.Referring to our tasks, which I described in the previous question, we need to face the fact that we need more staff at the regular border crossing points in order to handle the high number of passengers and to facilitate orderly border crossing. We at the same time need to ensure that nobody enters the territory of the European Union undetected and we also have to put more emphasis on cross border crime detection.
We are more and more active outside of the European Union.
In the third week of May, we have started our first joint operation outside of the European Union, in Western Balkans, in Albania, at the border to Greece. In the coming months, we expect to have the same applied at all countries in the Western Balkan region.
And with the new regulation, we might even have the chance to have joint operations outside of EU — not at the border but further outside.
For all those new tasks and challenges (combating document frauds, enhancing returns) we need to have the necessary staff and technical equipment.
Summing up, the statistics are roughly down to the level of 2014 and we continue to make progress, also in terms of returns.
As an agency, we have last year returned nearly 14,000 migrants who had no right to remain in the EU. This means that we have almost returned five times the figures of a few years ago. The migrants that we are returning are non-EU country nationals who have no right to remain in the territory of the EU.
But, as challenges are constantly changing, this also requires us to remain vigilant and constantly adapt our approach.
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How do you use geospatial technology, location, or Artificial Intelligence in these operations?
Decisions in border management, in risk analysis and on entry or refusal are by all means to be taken by and adequate number of sufficiently trained border guards. All this must not be replaced by automated systems or artificial intelligence.
But we can certainly use technology in preparing for such decisions. We are, for example, taking part in the EU Satellite program Copernicus, where we are taking advantage of many different services and there are some basic patterns, which keep repeating themselves and help us in creating a particular picture. And those pictures can be then used for better understanding, informed and proactive decision-making.
AI can be used in an array of border control tasks, including detecting cross-border crime patterns or in search and rescue, allowing for an even quicker reaction to a boat in distress. It can also be used in the collection and to a certain extent, analysis of biometric data. However, the actual decision-making cannot, will not, and in my personal opinion, must not be based on AI.
Being a European agency, you must be dealing with different countries within Europe. Is there an integrated framework in terms of geospatial data sharing, data access among different countries?
Cooperation with countries outside the EU is an integral part of our mandate and one of the strategic priorities for the agency. To ensure implementation of the European integrated border management, we develop and maintain a network of partnerships with border authorities in non-EU states, particularly those neighboring the EU and countries of origin and transit of migrants. This comprises, among others, also the analysis and sharing of data related to risks for internal security and the analysis of threats, which may affect the functioning or security of the external borders.
Apart from migration, which are the other challenges in border security?
We are experiencing a swift change in border security. While we were previously often simply checking the entry requirements, we now see ourselves often as the first filter in law enforcement. Often we are confronted with activities associated with cross border crime and also terrorism, which requires that inter-agency cooperation between coastguards, border guards, customs, communal police, Interpol and different stakeholders like Europol and the European Maritime Safety Agency or the European Fishery Control Agency.
A special break-through in this context was again our new regulation, through which we also received the so-called coast guard functions enhancing or cooperation with the European Maritime Safety Agency and the European Fishery Control Agency.
To better address new challenges, we are moving towards new solutions – we started to make our activities multipurpose.
While before 2016, we often used three vessels – one to combat pollution, one to exercise fishery control and one to practice border surveillance and to participate in SAR, we now have one vessel for all three tasks. We also use multipurpose aerial surveillance, where one patrol plane looking for example for a boat in distress can also at the same time report on an oil spill or illegal fishing. . Sighting in this context are in live-streamed to the headquarters in Warsaw, where a small team evaluates the case, draws necessary conclusions and informs the respective operational centers for an immediate action.
Are you using drones, and is there a new technology that can help in border security?
Currently, we are not using any drones in our operations, but the agency tested whether drones could be used for border surveillance, including search and rescue activities and now we are evaluating them.
We are always closely following technological developments. We have in the past acquired a lot of new technology in the field of biometrics. What we need to consider is the balance between what we call the human factor and technology. We need to be able to absorb new technology and integrate it in a way that it’s facilitating orderly cross border traffic and enhancement of security. What we need to avoid are systems that are costly but do not really produce the desired results.
We have ambitious projects ahead of us, particularly the implementation and smooth functioning of the entry-Exit System and the Electronic Travel Information and Authorization system.
In any case, if there is something coming up, we will be ready for immediate implementation, because it is our common aim to tackle emerging challenges to the best of our abilities.
Do you think geospatial technology can play a role in making the justice system more transparent?
As our mandate is border management, I don’t see a direct connection with the justice system.
We are experiencing a swift change in border security and geospatial technology will probably be used more and more.
When it comes to justice, we do not have a mandate to investigate. We can collect information and pass them on to relevant authorities, including member states and Europol, for investigation. Cooperation between different institutions and authorities, as well as information exchange, is the key.