Border management, the EU, and UNDP

Jill Washington

13 December 2010

Border management is not only about security but also about freer trade and transit. © OSCE

Border management is not only about security but also about freer trade and transit. © OSCE

Border management has become a significant line of external assistance for the European Union, and for cooperation between member states, the European Commission, and the UN, particularly in the former Soviet Union (FSU). The funding comes from European Commission budget lines devoted to implementation of regional political strategies,such as the European Neighbourhood Programme and the Central Asia Strategy. Border management has also come to represent a major focus of UNDP multi-country programming in this region. Including related drug action programmes, since 2002 UNDP has initiated work in Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Broadly speaking, UNDP’s work to date has been understood as successful.1 Among other things, UNDP has implemented nearly 150 million Euros’ worth of EU border management programming during the past decade.

There is no question that the EU wishes to export its ‘soft power’ via these border management programmes. But what exactly does this entail? And what dangers and opportunities are presented for the UN’s development work by this cooperation?

For some EU member states, these programmes began as an important component of a broader agenda to develop European policy and capacity on security. Border management was (and still is) seen as an acceptable vehicle for common action against mutual threats: drug trafficking, movement of Islamic extremists, etc. However, some EU Member States and Commission officials remain opposed to UNDP implementation of these programmes, due in part to concerns about trying to advance that agenda under a UN rather than directly European umbrella. The different management arrangements for the EUBAM, SCIBM and BOMCA Programmes (click here for more information on these) therefore represent various Commission attempts to satisfy the EU Member States and keep UNDP’s role to that of ‘administrative support platform’ for the application of ‘visibly’ European expertise.

Many in the Commission recognize that only the UN has the operational capacity on the ground to deliver border management assistance on a multi-country basis. However, others see utilizing development assistance to enhance security as a somewhat quixotic enterprise: Commission rules of aid assistance do not allow the transfer of key equipment or expertise; drugs and militants flow like water, taking the easiest route, so that reinforcing certain border areas merely displaces (rather than eliminates) activities of concern; it is next to impossible to establish objectively verifiable indicators in regard to countering security threats; and the whole venture may be undermined by corruption within the border services, which can only be tackled through direct budget support to pay salaries, as part of a broader developmental approach to public administration reform.

Likewise, engaging UNDP to the projection of EU soft power in the FSU risks jeopardizing the neutrality and impartiality of the UN system in the eyes of other stakeholders. Russian concerns in regard to border security in its ‘near abroad’ are inter alia expressed operationally through its leadership of the Council of Border Guard Commanders of the countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States. With a Secretariat based in the Lubyanka in Moscow (to which all CIS countries have attached liaison officers), the Council meets bi-annually. It has a mandate to coordinate joint efforts of Border Guards in relation to external CIS borders, as well as the reinforcement of internal border cooperation. Specific areas of work include harmonization of national legislation on border issues, mutual exchange of information, personnel training, and military/technical policy.

Suggestions for the future

In spring 2010, the Council of CIS Border Guard Commanders signed a memorandum of understanding with FRONTEX (the EU’s Border Agency), but the technical and institutional details of cooperation with the UNDP-implemented EU aid programmes have yet to be resolved. Significant discrepancies between the regulatory and technical models for border management being offered to CIS countries therefore remain. Most CIS countries seek to strike a balance between the ‘near abroad’ and the ‘new neighbourhood’: in autumn 2010, in the context of the SCIBM project, Armenia agreed to a European integrated border management strategy only weeks after extending the presence of Russian border forces within the country for a further 39 years.

But if the dangers here are obvious, so also are the opportunities—if the EU and UNDP can agree on a different, more collaborative agenda for the export of European border management to the CIS countries. The European model of border management has twin objectives: increased security, plus improved trade and transit facilitation. These objectives are seen as mutually reinforcing: stability and security attracts trade foreign investment; freer movement of goods and people enhances stability and security.

During the Andijan events of 2005 in Uzbekistan, the local community at Karasuu, a town in the Fergana Valley divided between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, opened a border crossing spontaneously, to support continued visits of relatives and to maintain what had previously been one of the largest cross-border markets in Central Asia. The BOMCA Programme acted immediately to secure agreement from the governments to keep the crossing open, with offers to provide the necessary means to ensure security. Within weeks up to 40,000 border crossings a day were being made, including multiple trips by small traders.

Apart from the economic support this provided to households in one of Central Asia’s poorer regions (e.g., providing residents of Kyrgyzstan with fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter; providing residents of Uzbekistan with access to manufactured goods from China) BOMCA helped defuse a direct challenge to state power at a critical moment and created a safety valve in the explosive environment of the Fergana. In this way, border management programmes can allow the EU and UN(DP) to express a voice on behalf of the most vulnerable households and help governments to strike critical balances between security and development.

Border areas are often comprised of large ethnic minorities (linked to neighbouring countries), communities that are marginalized in many respects. Beyond the Fergana Valley, frozen conflicts in the FSU countries—Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia—are all located in border areas. While the full resolution of these conflicts is not in prospect, progress can be made by allowing local populations to cross borders with ID cards rather than passports. In addition to being familiar to many FSU countries from Soviet times, such systems can also be drawn from the experience of European integration. Modern European integrated border management methodologies can provide the technical means and cross-border procedures required.

Separating transit of local populations from international transit and cargo trade at border crossing points in the FSU countries could bring significant reductions in journey times and delays experienced at borders. Reconfiguring border crossing point infrastructure, providing modern equipment to automate processes, and introducing integrated border management practices such as joint control by border agencies, could further reduce travel times and delays.

Prosperity in Europe was built on the incremental removal of such barriers to trade and transit. The border management programmes could therefore do more to mobilize civil society and private enterprise—road hauliers, freight forwarders—to promote the free trade agreements signed between EU and FSU countries, as well as those trade agreements concluded among FSU countries (e.g., the EurasEC customs union). Freer trade and transit, democracy building and security can be advanced together.

Without abandoning its multi-country programming approach, the EU and UNDP may wish to consider targeting assistance more discriminately within these border management programmes. This might also help define clearer exit strategies for programming. In most FSU countries, the key border agency remains the Border Guards—a military force within each national security service. In the poorer FSU countries, transition to European border management standards will ultimately require EU direct budget support for border guard salaries. A prerequisite for this should be conversion from a largely conscript-based military force to professional civilian border police serving as an arm of the Ministry of Interior, accountable to parliaments, not presidencies.

People hate borders—uncertainties over laws and procedures, conforntation with state power, men with uniforms and guns. The Schengen arrangements therefore represent both the EU’s true soft power and a culturally iconic aspiration for many citizens in FSU countries. The EU-UNDP border management programmes can export to the CIS many of the principles and practices behind the Schengen arrangements, with enormous development potential: facilitating movements of local populations to reduce social tensions and resolve frozen conflicts; supporting trade as a smart and quick way to alleviate poverty; building democratic governance through support for civil society and private enterprise; and promoting security sector reform.

The EU-UNDP border management programmes flow from a powerful concept. They are well-funded and usually well-implemented. They should be better articulated to reflect a clearer and more developmental agenda, acceptable to all stakeholders in the FSU countries.
Philip Peirce is an independent consultant to UNDP for border management and migration projects.


1 See, for example, George Gavrilis, “Beyond the Border Management Programme for Central Asia”, EU Central Asia Monitoring, no. 11,November 2009.