Migrants' Rights Network

DSEI: A supermarket for state surveillance and border wars

As borders are increasingly militarised and their operation privatised, migration, more than ever before, is also an anti-militarist struggle.


Private companies, producing and developing the technology used at borders are making money from the perceived threat of an ‘invasion’ of refugees in Europe and the very real suffering of people. Many are often among the world’s biggest arms companies.

These defence giants not only profit from the wars and state oppression that cause people to flee their homes, but also from the high-tech surveillance equipment that tracks them, the violence that greets them, and the biometric systems that register them on arrival. 

Profit from borders

The biannual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) trade fair is a chance for these companies to showcase their work and products. From 12-15 September 2017, DSEI will host over 1,600 companies, from across the defence and security sector industries, at the ExCeL centre in London Docklands. Many of the companies who profit from borders will be there – part of a border security market estimated at €15 billion in 2015 and predicted to rise to €29 billion by 2022.

All across Europe there has been an increasingly militarised response to migration by the European Union. Border Wars, a 2016 report puts the total EU funding for member state border security measures at €4.5 billion between 2004 and 2020.

Technologies used against migrants include monitoring towers, cameras, land radars and wireless telecommunication, infra-red surveillance, high-tech fences, identification systems, immigration databases, drones, even warships.

The European border security industry is dominated by major arms companies, including DSEI exhibitors Thales, Safran and BAE Systems – the third largest arms company in the world – who in 2002 won a £7.6 million contract from Romania to supply equipment used in tightening the border, including Mobile Surveillance Vehicles (MSVs), hand-held thermal imagers and night vision binoculars.

Border technology

Increased surveillance technology at borders is forcing undocumented migrants everywhere to take greater risks. This year over 2,400 people have already lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Over 5,000 people died in 2016.

The numbers are growing, but the routes and causes of death have changed. Starting from the summer of 2015 – the “long summer of migration” – huge numbers of people crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, taking the Balkan Route through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia or Hungary, then into Austria and Germany, or on to Nordic countries such as Sweden, where Syrian citizens were at one time almost guaranteed refugee status.

During the first few weeks of January 2016, more than 30,000 people successfully crossed the Aegean to Greece, in comparison to nearly 1,500 in the whole of January 2015.

Border shut-downs

But one by one, countries along the Balkan Route began to shut their borders, even building physical walls in some cases, and criminalising migration in increasingly creative ways. After Turkey was given €3 billion to keep migrants away from EU borders, European border army FRONTEX was deployed to some of the Greek islands, and NATO warships began patrolling the Eastern Med, this stopped being the busiest route into Europe, and people began making their way to Libya instead.

Libya is now an incredibly dangerous place as rival militias compete for power. Black Africans are commonly captured and put into makeshift camps by these gangs, often in starving, torturous, and extremely poor conditions. The gangs know that the European Union likes to export its border management to external “third countries”, where monitoring of human rights conditions are harder, and trafficking people is increasingly lucrative. The European Union has been training the Libyan Coastguard and supplied it with €200 million, but rather than rescuing people, they are carrying out illegal push-backs and armed violence against migrants. Now ISIS is also active in Libya, the situation is even worse.

Solidarity with migrants

In 2017, nearly all deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean have been people using the Central Mediterranean route, trying to cross between Libya and Italy. NATO has now also deployed warships there as part of ‘Operation Sea Guardian’.

The British government has thrown millions at the Calais border, which seems on its way to full privatisation. The death toll is rising along with the amount of money thrown at the border, with a growing number of deaths each year. An October 2016 report from the Calais Research Network documented 40 companies benefiting from this situation, many of whom will be exhibiting at DSEI.

Opposing DSEI is one way to act in solidarity with migrants.

Join the week of action to Stop the Arms Fair at London’s Docklands from 4-11 September, 2017 with the Stop the Arms Fair coalition.

Thursday 7 September’s day of action has the theme ‘Solidarity Without Borders‘ making the links between the arms and security industry. There are also events going on across the UK, in the lead up to DSEI and during the event.


Amy Hall and Sara Woods are members of the Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of independent writers and researchers, writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.


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