left background right background

The Creation of Tomorrow's Borders

written by Lennart V. Schmidt

The European Union's unwavering commitment to controlling its external borders was impressively demonstrated during last week's D-Day celebrations. As part of the festivities, a reenactment of the Allied troops landing in Normandy took place. Under the watchful eyes of thousands of spectators, British paratroopers landed on European soil. To their surprise, they found French border officials sitting at a table in the middle of the field, politely requesting their passports for inspection. This was a stark reminder that passport checks were now mandatory since the UK is no longer an EU member, underscoring the EU's firm stance on border control.


Migration issues, which have become a permanent fixture on the national political agenda, especially in Germany, since the summer of 2015, are not new. They are crucial factors in the rise of right-wing parties in Germany and Europe. This development can be traced back to earlier times: Ulrich Herbert and Jakob Schönhagen, in their APuZ article on the genesis of German asylum policy, highlighted that asylum policy divided the German public like no other issue in the 1990s. The polarized debate in the early 1990s also led to violent riots against refugees and newly arrived migrants. The shocking television broadcast images of the riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Hoyerswerda are engrained in German history and serve as a reminder of the long-standing and complex nature of migration issues in the country.


In the early Federal Republic, asylum policy was heavily influenced by the Cold War and focused on European communist countries. The 1980s saw a brief period during which the right to political asylum was extended to people from other world regions. However, this window of opportunity soon closed due to rising refugee numbers, an intensifying political discourse, and violent incidents like Rostock-Lichtenhagen. In 1992, the SPD and CDU agreed on the asylum compromise, stipulating that asylum could only be applied to people not coming from a "safe third country." This law shifted the burden of receiving migrants to the countries at the EU's external borders, as refugees now had to apply for asylum in the first EU country they entered.


The refugee questions bring us to one of the original problems of the European Union—the abolition of EU internal borders without a common EU border and asylum policy. Hence, it is unsurprising that the EU has initiated agreements with countries like Tunisia and Turkey to manage migration processes before reaching Europe. The EU anti-migration strategy includes transforming the EU's external borders into "Smart Borders" using artificial intelligence to install a comprehensive AI-based and drone-supported surveillance system at the EU's external borders. The popular TV host Jan Böhmermann humorously commented on this strategy in ZDF Magazin Royale, saying, "How ingenious would it be to outsource inhumane actions to machines?"


When lifting the EU external borders, it is clear that crucial aspects such as a common asylum and border policy were not adequately considered. However, the development of a database for monitoring entry into the Schengen area began shortly after the ratification of Schengen. With the launch of the Schengen Information System (SIS) in the 1990s, the automated data exchange on non-EU passport holders between EU member states was revolutionized. Today, SIS is "the largest and most widely used information exchange system in the areas of security and border management in Europe." Developing databases like SIS builds on pioneering computerization projects like the Central Register of Foreigners (AZR). The AZR, introduced in 1953 under Allied pressure during the Cold War, was designed, among other purposes, to control and potentially prevent the entry of communists into West Germany. The card-based register, affiliated with the Federal Administrative Office in Cologne, was converted into a computer-based database in 1967. Its integration into the European database family in the 1990s made it part of the EU's Smart Border strategy. Nevertheless, the AZR was already a central element of digital migration control in the 1960s. It was achieved through early computerization and its use as a crucial migration and entry control instrument in West Germany.


However, the concept of a digital border is challenging to define. If you ask an AI image generator, such as Microsoft's, to visualize the prompt "Digital Borders Europe," it generates an image of a hetero couple walking hand in hand, surrounded by container ships and EU flags, into a dazzling sunrise. With some imagination, the airplane under the border crossing could be a Eurofighter, the symbol of European economic cooperation.


For a non-EU citizen wanting to enter the EU today, databases are essential to the entry process. If a person does not hold a German passport, they must pass through the digital border before reaching the physical one. For instance, they must not have a negative database entry in the AZR or SIS when applying for a visa. In other words, the digital border precedes the physical one and remains crucial at the physical border crossing, as transportation companies only transport travelers with valid visas. These companies face heavy fines if they bring people across the border without a visa. During the physical border crossing, database entries are rechecked, with border officials reading entries from other authorities and adding their own. Thus, the digital border is closely linked to the physical one, as both are crossed simultaneously during entry.


Conversely, the digital border precedes the physical control, as a negative database entry makes reaching the physical border nearly impossible. For EU citizens, databases now facilitate entry. Many automated border crossings allow them to scan their passports, compare the passport photo with their face, and thus bypass the often long queues at border controls more easily. However, for others, these databases have become insurmountable digital barriers.


With databases as central components of border control, they become "powerful sorting machines of the globalized world," as sociologist Stefan Mau argues. The Digital Borders research project aims to explore the sociopolitical contexts that enabled the creation of digital borders in Germany. It investigates the developments in computer and information technology, their impact on societal discourses on the rationalization and modernization of technology, and the connection between migration and surveillance. In doing so, it contributes to the history of Germany's path to a "digital society," focusing on migration. The project's findings will provide valuable insights for policymakers and academics interested in Europe's sociopolitical contexts of digital borders, migration, and surveillance.