OSCE Border Control Conference Offers Opportunities and Risks

Central Eurasia

Like most volatile regions in the world, Central Asia has a laundry list of border security issues ranging from smuggling, livestock threats, disputes over land and water, unclear border lines, drug trafficking, and threats of extremist spillover. In response, the United States, European Union, and Russia have been sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Central Asia to help, especially to Tajikistan, but many challenges exist.

The OSCE Conference on border security, going on this week, presents a unique opportunity for experts and practitioners to attempt to address some of these challenges. With the aim of finding new ways to outsmart an increasingly creative and tech-savvy smuggler, the focus of the conference is seeking to “Develop Innovative Solutions to Border Issues through New Technologies.”

Some of the topics under discussion at the conference include using digital technologies for border surveillance, integrating data collecting and sharing, assessing major vulnerabilities in border management, and understanding advanced technology used by some criminal groups. The conference participants will also discuss the potential effectiveness of employing border patrol drones and biographic and biometric inspection tools.

After years of supporting Central Asian governments in their quest to address border security issues, U.S. and E.U. experts will likely be there to highlight lessons learned. Some of these lessons, however, show that improving governance issues may be more important than introducing new technologies to address Central Asia’s complex border security issues.

In the past four years, the United States has provided many types of equipment and training for border security within the $760 million allocated to the sub-region in military and police aid. This includes radios to improve coordination among boarder guards as well as 80 all-terrain vehicles to enhance mobility in Tajikistan. In addition to equipment, the U.S. has provided various training courses to Central Asian border security forces such as Signals Captains Career, Radio Maintenance, Counternarcotics, and Intelligence courses.

The European Union’s Border Management Program in Central Asia (BOMCA) focuses on non-lethal aid and training to modernize and reform border management in the five Central Asian states. One of the principle projects of BOMCA, which provided €33.6 million from 2003-2014, is to successfully implement European Integrated Border Management (IBM) practices into Central Asian border practices. Through training and new equipment, the E.U. hopes to establish better-organized border and customs agencies.

The level of technology being provided by the U.S. and the E.U., however, is no where near the level being discussed at the upcoming OSCE conference. The United States, for instance, has refrained from providing its Personal Identification, Secure Comparison, and Evaluation System (PISCES) border security program to any Central Asia country. This program, which is in use in Afghanistan, provides computers, software, hardware, assistance to enable border officials to quickly identify suspect persons attempting to enter or leave the country.

One of the reasons why U.S. and E.U. officials may not be providing such equipment is the level of corruption in the countries. Central Asia expert George Gavrilis has said, “Central Asian border authorities—from the lowly border guard to the highest level officials in capital cities—remain corrupt, unreformed, and resistant to change.” Much of this corruption is visible through the ongoing narcotics trade—especially in Tajikistan. UNODC has suggested that numerous high-level Tajik officials are either directly involved in the drug trade or are taking bribes to willfully support it. If this is true, it would be ineffective to provide expensive and advanced aid to countries who won’t effectively use it.

Additionally, there are examples of serious motivation gaps such as a general unwillingness to learn how to implement new strategies or use equipment for its intended purpose. According to Gavrilis, "Tajikistan has been trying to create professional boarder guards for years, but the Tajik government is unwilling to implement it…and seems intent on ignoring it into oblivion.”

Gavrilis also indicated that multi-million dollar truck x-rays and radiation detectors given to border authorities in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are never used. There has even been an instance where U.S. provided drug-detection dogs, which were sent to Tajikistan for counter-narcotics purposes, were sold for breeding and personal profit.

Given these challenges, international grants for new technology that can support checks and balances on border security management systems could be useful in reducing corruption. The E.U. Integrated Border Management program may present a hopeful model as it seeks to facilitate both inter-agency and international cooperation and monitoring. However, many instances show that giving new technology and equipment to countries that lack good governance and motivation makes such efforts complicated at best.

Jackie Mahler is an Intern at the Security Assistance Monitor where she covers security issues in Central Asia