Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Border Externalization to West Africa: Three Logics of Border Security Technologies



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Guest post by Eva Magdalena Stambøl. Eva is a postdoctoral researcher at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin. This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies, Theoretical Criminology and Sage Journals that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here or the next three months. 

Border surveillance in Mali

Border security-building has become a main type of the Global North’s assistance and aid to countries in the Global South. While often framed as state-building, development, or humanitarian action, the main objective of border security aid is to stop unwanted/risky mobility and transnational illicit flows - particularly those allegedly destined for the Global North. This blog post reflects on the border technologies exported by the EU and other international donors to West Africa. It is complementary to the article I recently published in Theoretical Criminology, Borders as penal transplants: Control of territory, mobility and illegality in West Africa, and based on fieldwork in Senegal, Mali and Niger.

The border as containment

The first type of security technology exported – border software – aims to improve the border’s containment function vis-à-vis crime and ‘irregular’ mobility. Land border crossings and airports across West Africa are increasingly equipped with biometric technology. Different international actors promote and deliver their own preferred border software – such as the US-developed Securiport in Senegal and the IOM-developed MIDAS in Mali and Niger. These technologies include biometric data collection and analysis (such as fingerprints), and check of ID documents against the Interpol database. The technology should also check the IDs against a national digital criminal database but no such thing exists (yet) in any West African country. Curiously, the market competition between these technology providers has resulted in the different border technologies not always being inter-operable, which could potentially impede cross-border cooperation between law enforcement from countries with different border technologies.

´Unbounding´ law enforcement through transnational connectivity

Another technology designed to deliver interoperability, intelligence and information sharing between law enforcement in different West African countries and European counterparts is the EU-funded West African Police Information System (WAPIS). Launched in 2009 and implemented by Interpol, WAPIS was initially deployed to fight drug trafficking from Latin America through West Africa to Europe as part of the EU’s flagship Cocaine Route Programme (€50 million). WAPIS is a judicial database that includes criminal analysis, linked up to the Interpol global database. It is built around the logic of ‘un-bordering’ or ‘unbounding’ law enforcement through collection, analysis and sharing of police intelligence and information across borders. This technology is a good example of a ´mission creep´: the project´s objective has been re-oriented from drugs to combating migrant smuggling, in line with a broader shift in the EU´s security agenda.

The implementation of WAPIS is an evidence of the EU’s crime-fighting ambition in West Africa. At the time of fieldwork (2017), the project had entered its 10th year of roll-out, which entailed a pilot phase in the four countries of Benin, Ghana, Mali and Niger. This phase had consisted of basic digitalisation and automatisation of paper-based police files as well as the centralisation of data collection since, the project implementers explained in an interview, there is need for the establishment of national WAPIS databases before these data can be shared between countries. Project implementation was hampered by the lack of computers or even electricity. Yet, sharing criminal data requires (apart from digitalised data) a regional platform solution. While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) wished to import the (expensive) Schengen Information System (SIS) model from Europe, Interpol offered to host the platform within its existing capacity. However, experts I interviewed noted that there is resistance in West Africa to having a database with sensitive national data placed at the Interpol headquarters based in the former colonial power, France.

Controlling population and potential future risks

The EU implements large scale projects (€25-30 million each) to build biometric civil registries in West African countries (e.g. Senegal, Mali), implemented by Civipol - the French Ministry of Interior´s ´development agency´ co-owned by the major security companies, Thales and Airbus. While the official explanation is that biometric civil registries are necessary for governing populations, there is also an underlying – and not at all hidden – control function here with regard to migration: interviews with EU officials and the Senegalese project´s action fiche make it clear that biometric civil registries in countries of origin and transit make it easier for the EU, who hopes to have access to the databases, to identify and track down irregular migrants. These projects are thus aimed at identifying and managing the risk of future paperless migrants (or other potential unwanted or dangerous individuals) arriving to Europe.


The border security technologies described above seem to have three main functions and logics: First, systems at land borders, airports and seaports aim to check the (il)legality of people or goods against global and national databases. In doing so, they reinforce the state´s boundaries through a logic of containment. Secondly, sharing of information and intelligence via technology aims to enhance cooperation between law enforcement in different countries. This logic seeks to ‘unborder’ or ‘unbound’ law enforcement to overcome the impediments posed by state sovereignty and national jurisdictions. The third logic seeks to survey the population as a whole in case they come to pose a risk or security threat to Europe in the future.

Although these projects are at the present relatively uncoordinated and scattered, they seem to make out components of a system in the making (e.g. the biometric technology at the border posts could in the future be connected to the national digital criminal databases and civil registry, etc.). However, the making of the system did not sufficiently factor in the social, political and material reality on the ground in West Africa, where implementation is often hampered by the agency and resistance of local actors and the lack of computers and electricity. All these technologies are met with a lot of scepticism from West Africans. For instance, Senegalese customs officials are reluctant to put information in the Securiport system because they think that the US gets access to the data although the system is supposed to be only national.  Many also think – and accurately so – that these systems will be used to prevent West Africans from coming to Europe. Presented as technical solutions to governing illegality, border security technologies are crucial components of border externalization to West Africa.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Stambøl, E. M. (2021). Border Externalization to West Africa: Three Logics of Border Security Technologies. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/09/border [date]

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