Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Ninth Report

CHAPTER 2: the nature and purpose of border controls

11. As we noted at the outset of this report, national borders have a hugely symbolic importance in defining a country's territory; and border controls have historically been an important expression of sovereign control over a nation's boundaries. Hence the significance of the decision in the Single European Act to create an area without internal frontiers and of the measures taken by the Schengen States to abolish internal frontier controls. Border controls on people may have lost some of their original importance as a result of modern developments stemming from the increase in the volume and diversity of global travel. These developments have made it necessary to rely to a greater extent on other means of control, both before arrival at the border (in the form of visa regimes and carrier liability) and after entry (in the form of identity card systems and other internal controls), and on approaches based more on targeted intelligence than on systematic checks. Yet they continue to be the primary instrument in enforcing rules on access to the national territory of both goods and people.

12. As we explained in Chapter 1, strengthening external frontiers has in recent years been seen not only as necessary to compensate for the removal of internal frontier controls, but also as an increasingly high political priority in its own right in the fight against illegal immigration and cross-border crime, including people-smuggling.

13. Some of our witnesses, while acknowledging the symbolic importance of border controls questioned their practical efficacy, in view of the difficulty of policing long land and sea borders. The Immigration Law Practitioners' Association categorised most existing systems of border management as based on either military or police models, the former focused on keeping people out and the latter pre-occupied with security and the identification of criminals. They argued for a more rights-based model akin to that which applies at the internal frontiers of the EU, which recognises that the majority of those crossing borders have an entitlement to do so.[9] Others pointed out that the significance of controls at the border itself had diminished as the border had been "pushed back" to countries of origin by the extension of visa regimes and carrier sanctions, described by Dr Guiraudon, research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Lille, as "the two cornerstones of remote migration control".[10]

14. As an instrument to counter illegal immigration and cross-border crime, border controls clearly have their limitations. They can never be 100 per cent effective: totally sealed and controlled land and sea borders are neither feasible nor desirable.[11] It will always be possible for determined people to find ways across long land or sea borders, and sophisticated criminals and facilitators of illegal immigration also find ways of avoiding detection even at guarded crossing points and airports, for example by using forged documents. Most illegal immigrants arriving in the United Kingdom by land or sea will have crossed an external EU border; and we were told by the German Border Guard that 50 per cent of illegal immigrants detected in Germany had entered from another Schengen country.[12]

15. It also needs to be borne in mind that an unintended consequence of more stringent controls at border crossings is that more illegal immigrants may resort to criminal groups of people-smugglers to assist them to cross the border.

16. For these reasons border controls cannot bear the full weight of ensuring security in the EU, but relaxed or inefficient controls will clearly tend to increase the risks of illegal immigration and cross-border crime. It is significant that the Schengen countries felt obliged to adopt a wide range of compensatory measures after they went ahead with the abolition of internal border controls between them. These included, among other things, an upgrading of controls on persons within the national territories of the Schengen Member States to compensate for the elimination of controls at internal borders.[13]

17. It would be wrong therefore to dismiss the value of border controls and regard them as of only symbolic significance. Given the limited number of entry points, they represent the most appropriate place at which to check the admissibility of the people and goods entering the country. This is most apparent for air traffic where there is relatively little opportunity to enter other than through authorised airports. Land and sea borders do not lend themselves to such tight controls, but the vast majority of traffic still enters via the authorised crossing/entry points.

18. Borders are natural points at which to make checks on entry to a country and that is why a wide of range of checks is made there, not only on people but on goods for customs, health, plant health and other purposes; and to enforce rules on prohibited and restricted goods. The border is also a natural focus of police activity, as it provides an opportunity to check people arriving and it is also the place where by definition the act of smuggling takes place. Border controls therefore have a role to play in combating illegal immigration and various forms of cross-border crime ranging from small scale smuggling to organised crime and international terrorism. Border controls fulfil this role, not only through the controls actually carried out, which each year lead to the detection of large numbers of people seeking to cross illegally or suspected of criminal offences, but also through the deterrent effect they have on at least some people who would otherwise seek to enter the territory illegally.

9   p 53. Back

10   p 89. Back

11   We were told by Mr Järviö, the Director General, International Security Affairs in the Finnish Ministry of the Interior that it was possible to control the Finnish frontier with Russia to the extent that there were only 44 illegal immigrants crossing the border into Finland in a year, all of whom were apprehended (Q 7). But the geography of the Finnish/Russian border makes it unlikely that such results could be achieved more generally. Back

12   Q 52. Back

13   The Schengen provisions also allow for the temporary re-introduction of border controls at internal Schengen borders for national security reasons, a provision which has been invoked on a number of occasions. Back

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