Borders Inc: the migration control industry
published by El Confidencial, Fundación porCausa, Spain
The database is composed only of central government public contracts that were published. Public contracts with a 'confidential' seal, as well as those that are not made public by the executive, are excluded from this special feature. Also excluded from this investigation are contracts awarded by European Union bodies, Autonomous Communities -with competences mainly in the area of reception- and city councils, as well as funds processed as subsidies -mainly used to finance services for the initial reception and integration of migrants and refugees-. Also excluded from this investigation are public budgets intended to cover fixed expenses related to migration control, such as the salaries of Guardia Civil agents deployed in Ceuta and Melilla.
At the end of 2020, the Canary Islands experienced a record number of irregular migrant arrivals. In total, that year more than 23,000 people arrived in cayuco and patera boats, most of them from Western Sahara under the control of Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal. The authorities could not cope. The images of migrants crammed together and sleeping rough on the quay at Arguineguín made all the front pages and went round the world. The migratory upsurge was repeated in 2021, consolidating the so-called ‘Canary Islands route’, one of the deadliest on the planet.
What few know is that, almost 2,000 kilometres away, in the Madrid city of Alcorcón, this migration crisis became a great business opportunity for one entrepreneur. Juan Benigno Alonso Alarcón, owner of Alonso Hipercas, turned over at least 2.3 million euros by supplying “emergency” food to migrants sheltered in temporary stay centres in the Canary Islands. Local newspapers reported on the poor quality of the food supplied to the migrants at that time.
Spain is already one of Europe’s main sea and land gateways for irregular immigration. The reinforcement of border controls on the Turkish and Libyan routes, as well as instability in the Sahel countries and problems with Morocco, which uses migrants as an instrument of pressure against the Spanish government, have increased migratory flows towards the Canary Islands and, to a lesser extent, the mainland. Proof of this is that the most numerous nationality in the last migration crisis at the gates of Melilla – which resulted in 23 deaths, according to Morocco, and 37 according to NGOs – was Sudanese. At the same time, migration control is becoming a growing market, financed with public money and hidden behind a cloak of secrecy.
Who wins with migration control? El Confidencial and Fundación porCausa have analysed all published central government contracts related to migration, from January 2014 to April 2022. This investigation covers 2,795 public contracts totalling 981.8 million euros. This is just the visible tip of the iceberg. This is what we have found.
1. Border business: always the winners
In recent years, the government has reinforced its entire migration control deployment, from the Guardia Civil’s maritime action vessels to the network of external surveillance radars, including the modernisation of the fences of Ceuta and Melilla, equipped with the latest technology. The ‘ranking’ of the companies that have benefited most from government contracts in the area of migration includes some of the main Spanish and Ibex 35 companies. The ACS Group (Clece, Cobra and Retevisión, among others), owned by Florentino Pérez and second in the ranking, has a diversified portfolio that ranges from the organisation of awareness-raising campaigns in refugee centres to the deployment of private security guards in the Aliens offices, including the security lights surrounding the port of Melilla or the provision of meals and the cleaning of centres where undocumented migrants are held.
Indra, one of the first to take advantage of the emerging migration control market, also occupies a prominent position. Indra not only operates Renfe’s website or designs applications such as Covid radar, but also maintains the radar network used by the Guardia Civil to intercept small boats, manages the video cameras at border crossings and supplies fingerprint and passport scanners for Barcelona and Madrid airports. Of the 58 contracts awarded to Indra in the field of migration, 45 were exempted from public tender. The Indra group has more than 52,000 employees, but, in several of these public contracts, it is listed as a ‘small and medium-sized enterprise’, a condition that can favour the award of a contract. In response to questions from porCausa and El Confidencial, Indra explains that it does not apply as an SME in the tenders and refers to the responsible contracting body: “We understand that this is an error”.
Another company that stands out in the ranking is Eulen, which focuses on the management of detention centres for foreigners. Also appearing are Air Europa and Air Nostrum, which handle deportation flights, and El Corte Inglés, which sells computers, air conditioners, mattresses, furniture and other products for migrant detention centres, immigration offices and other state agencies. This company also participates in the management of the ‘anti-immigration radars’ scattered along the Spanish coast and even supplies the visa printers used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
2. An opaque and unknown industry
The control and management of migration in Spain moves hundreds of millions of public funds every year, but it is still an unknown issue for the general public. This is largely due to the opacity that is commonplace in the field of migration on the part of the public administration: six out of every 10 contracts analysed were awarded without a public tender, and the specifications and other details are often not published. The figure includes minor contracts, which by default are not put out to tender, but among which it is common for them to be awarded for the maximum amount allowed to go this way. Journalists are allowed to enter prisons, military barracks, hospitals and other critical infrastructure, but not alien detention centres and other parts of the migration control system.
With the information available, based on the data analysed, it can be affirmed that the Ministry of the Interior is the one that allocates the most money for migration control (five out of every 10 euros). But we know that not everything is there, so this analysis cannot be exhaustive. Often, the Interior Ministry imposes a ‘confidential’ stamp on these contracts, citing national security reasons. The ministry does not provide estimated figures on its spending on border control. Moreover, in recent years, the government has awarded contracts worth millions to private companies or entities that then subcontract to other companies, adding another layer of opacity. The transparency law recognises the right to request information from any public institution, but not from private organisations. For example, the latest renovations of the fences in Ceuta and Melilla fell to Transformación Agraria S.A. (32 million euros), which in turn works with subcontractors. Transformación Agraria S.A. (Tragsa) does not provide information on these works, nor is it obliged to do so. This is the same logic applied by the Ministry of Migration when it signed an agreement with the Red Cross to take charge of the humanitarian and emergency reception system at the Arguineguín wharf. Neither the Interior, nor Migration, nor the Red Cross provide the specifications of these contracts.
3. Spain, a laboratory for migration control
The migration control business is going international. Spain functions as a laboratory in which new technologies are tested, from drones to crossing detectors, which are subsequently acquired by foreign states. When Zapatero’s government decided to install concertinas on the fences of Ceuta and Melilla, the manufacturer of these steel razor wire fences, the Malaga-based Mora Salazar, was barely a provincial company. Today, Mora Salazar is a multinational with offices in Berlin and exports concertina to some 30 countries, including Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Sudan. Another ‘made in Spain’ migration control product with wide international projection is the Integrated External Surveillance System (SIVE), designed by Indra and operated by the Guardia Civil. This system has already been acquired by a large number of countries, from Portugal and Romania to Hong Kong. The Interior does not provide the SIVE contract specifications and assures that “it has not carried out any contracting with the company Indra in the migratory field”.
What started as a domestic business has grown into a major industry attracting numerous foreign companies. There are already three foreign companies in the top 10 of this market. The first is Babcock, a British company that operates the Maritime Rescue air service for 271 million euros. Babcock maintains a ‘low-cost’ business model that results in regular conflicts with its workforce, according to complaints by the CGT union.
In 2019, an investigation published in ‘elDiario.es’ revealed that the three planes used by Babcock to carry out rescues in the Mediterranean were flying with broken radars. For at least five months, the professionals of Salvamento Marítimo only had their eyes to locate drifting pateras. Radar has a range of 30 nautical miles, while human eyesight only has a range of two miles in maximum visibility. That year, at least 552 people died trying to reach the Spanish coast via the Mediterranean, according to IOM data.
Security sources who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity express their concern and argue that France is Morocco’s best ally. The same sources agree that there is a risk that these French companies, which are closely linked to the political power in their country (a common occurrence in the defence sector), could use the information they have in favour of third countries, contrary to Spain’s interests. Thales, ATOS, Inetum and Eiffage did not respond to questions asked by this newspaper.
4. Africa, the outsourced frontier
From the beaches of Senegal it is possible to glimpse the extensive deployment of the Spanish Guardia Civil in that country. The Guardia Civil’s boats and helicopters sweep the Senegalese coastline day and night to prevent canoes from setting sail for the Canary Islands. The same dynamic also extends to Mauritania. At the airport in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, it is a National Police officer, not a Senegalese gendarme, who checks passengers’ documents before boarding.
The government’s efforts to prevent the arrival of migrants are not limited to Spain’s physical borders, but also extend to the countries of origin and transit. Spain deploys agents and military troops to combat migration from Africa. In addition, each year, the Spanish government spends large sums of money to subcontract a long list of African governments and rewards those that do the most to repress migration flows. This investigation was able to locate and analyse 236 contracts related to the outsourcing of border control for more than 93 million euros. This expenditure is mainly made through the International and Ibero-American Foundation (FIIAPP), which is attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although the Ministries of the Interior and Defence are also involved. In return, these African governments, including several authoritarian regimes, act as border guards. The externalisation of migration control is deepening.
Defence responds that it does not allocate resources to “projects and contracts directly related to migration”, but acknowledges that, “in certain situations”, the Armed Forces provide “operational and logistical support” in emergencies “of a migratory nature”. For its part, the Foreign Ministry does not provide the specifications for the 28 contracts requested and explains that the FIIAPP’s migration projects in Morocco and other African countries are financed by European Union funds. Furthermore, it does not detail whether Spain has mechanisms in place to prevent these products from being used to violate the fundamental rights of migrants, but assures that the country “ensures the guarantee and respect for fundamental rights in the exercise of its external action”.
The Spanish government’s perks and aid to countries that cooperate in the fight against irregular migration include everything: all-terrain vehicles, trucks, motorbikes, night vision goggles, drones, balaclavas, computers, equipment for intercepting communications, biometric recognition programmes, radars, video cameras, military helmets, bulletproof vests, detachable hangars, generators and even socks. Spain also provides training, education and other services to enable the security forces of these countries in the use of these technologies.
The 236 outsourcing contracts analysed by El Confidencial and porCausa show that Morocco is one of the main recipients of these products and services. Some of Madrid’s most expensive donations to Rabat coincide with moments of crisis when the Moroccan authorities relaxed migration control.
Spain employs a similar logic with a long list of African countries, including Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Niger, a country located at the crossroads of the migratory routes crossed by 90 per cent of migrants of sub-Saharan origin trying to reach Europe. Since 2015, Niger has been criminally prosecuting anyone directly or indirectly linked to migrants and restricting the movement of people within the country, a measure applauded by the European Union.
In the late 1990s, José María Aznar’s government instructed the CNI to create a network of spies and informants in Africa to monitor the movement of irregular migrants and trafficking networks. One of the CNI agents involved in the design of this spy network, mainly in Sahelian and sub-Saharan African countries, acknowledges that local authorities often use the technology supplied by Spain to persecute and repress opposition groups, activists and citizens critical of the government. The same source, who led several cells of informants for more than 15 years, claims that the Spanish authorities are aware of the dual use by some African governments of such devices and products supposedly intended to combat irregular immigration. A Guardia Civil agent with several years of experience in Senegal and Mauritania corroborates the CNI agent’s information. Both sources request anonymity to speak in the context of this investigation.
Among the companies contracted by Spain to supply these products to African countries, Fieldsports Ltd., a hunting and sporting goods shop located in a town in northern Malta, stands out. Since 2020, this SME has invoiced more than four million euros to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through 21 contracts to supply vehicles, military uniforms, night vision goggles, drones, repeaters and telecommunications technology.
Fieldsports is one of the companies that appear in the Paradise Papers. Its director, James Fenech, is under investigation in Malta for allegedly violating the international embargo on Libya at the height of the war. According to the newspapers ‘Malta Today’ and ‘Times of Malta’, Fenech allegedly supplied, among other things, semi-rigid boats that were used by pro-Gaddafi foreign mercenaries to flee Libya. In response to this investigation, Fieldsports denies favourable treatment by the Spanish government and clarifies that its director, James Fenech, is being investigated for his role in the company Sovereign Charterers Limited. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it “carries out the relevant checks” before awarding contracts and stresses that Fieldsports “is not included in any of the databases” for the prevention of money laundering, the financing of terrorism and tax havens.
5. Obsessed with the southern border
Spain has a ministry for migration, but migration management is practically a monopoly of the interior ministry. Like his predecessors, Minister Marlaska and his team see migration as a problem that endangers Spain’s security. The division of functions and competences frequently leads to friction between Escrivá and Marlaska, both of whom are Socialist ministers.
The government, led by the Interior Ministry, strives to reinforce the border perimeter at any cost – especially on the southern border – which consumes 8 out of every 10 euros allocated by the central government for migration control. The figure contrasts with another reality: in Spain, 8 out of every 10 undocumented migrants come from Latin Americaand work in essential jobs, especially in the care sector, looking after the elderly and children. These people – most of them women – enter the country on tourist visas, mainly through Madrid and Barcelona airports. Asked about this, the Interior responded that “the idea of surrounding international airports with a land border is foolish”.
At midnight on 18 May, the borders of Ceuta and Melilla reopened after being closed for more than two years. Those who queued up to be reunited with their families were able to see some glimpses of the so-called “smart border”, one of the most promising businesses for the migration control industry. The border of the future is taking shape in these two Spanish enclaves. Spain is the vanguard of the European Union, which in mid-2020, in the midst of the pandemic, approved an expenditure of more than 300 million euros to implement these “smart borders” on Europe’s external perimeter.
The Interior Ministry has been allocating resources for several years and keeps a close eye on the details. This system incorporates cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, with biometric readers, state-of-the-art cameras and even drones with which the Guardia Civil already locates and pursues migrants trying to enter irregularly. Those who attended the reopening of the Ceuta border could hear the drone of the Matrice 300 RTK drones used by the Guardia Civil in the two autonomous cities. More than 50 groups warn of the risks that the “smart border” entails for the fundamental rights of migrants and cross-border people. The Ministry of the Interior assures that the implementation of the “smart border” is a decision of the European Union, which works to “combine respect for individual rights with improved protection of European territory in the face of current threats”.
6. A business for all
The business that emerges from Spain’s migration policies does not only involve large infrastructures and advanced technology. It is in the most trivial and unsuspected details that small and medium-sized entrepreneurs gain their biggest market share, sometimes with questionable practices.
Albie, a company “specialising in school meals”, supplies food to several detention centres for foreigners. It is the same company that provided maintenance, cleaning and food for the Fuerteventura CIE for several years, until an investigation by porCausa and El Confidencial revealed that the centre had been empty for five years. Albie billed more than half a million euros in that time without providing any kind of service.
Following the publication of this information, the Ministry of Interior closed the Fuerteventura CIE. Since then, this same company has invoiced the National Police more than 13 million for the supply of food to other CIE, mainly in the Canary Islands. The company Alonso Hipercas, mentioned at the beginning of this special, sells to the State the food served in the CATE of Cartagena. The Guardia Civil claims that this CATE is closed and does not even have a planned opening date. Last year, Alonso Hipercas invoiced more than 35,000 euros to the Ministry of Interior for “various supplies and services” for the CATE in Cartagena. Interior awarded him this contract without a public tender. The ministry headed by Fernando Grande-Marlaska does not provide the specifications, but assures that this CATE is “completed and ready, but pending an administrative procedure by the Ministry of Defence” and affirms that these contracts “are being used in the provisional facilities set up in the port of Cartagena”.
7. A broken model?
“We are a country that has always defended regular and orderly migration,” Pedro Sánchez recently responded to questions about the latest tragedy at the Melilla border. On paper, Spanish migration policy aims to prevent unauthorised entries, facilitate the safe arrival of those who have permission to work and safeguard the defence of migrants’ fundamental rights. An analysis of migration management contracts reveals a model far removed from these interests, in which the management of Spanish borders is sometimes left in the hands of non-democratic governments and a small number of private actors. A group of 20 companies receives six out of every 10 euros of public funds allocated to border sealing, according to research carried out by El Confidencial and Causa based on publicly available information at the national level [see methodology].
United Nations projections indicate that in the next 30 years the working-age population in Spain will fall to 50%. Various economists, researchers, employers’ organisations and NGOs warn of the need to implement migration management policies in order, among other things, to tackle the low birth rate and the progressive ageing of Spanish society. There are currently some 500,000 undocumented non-EU nationals living in Spain, 147,000 of whom are minors. The number of migrants arriving in Spain illegally – and the number of people who die trying – continues to grow. At the same time, the government is increasing public spending on migration control, thus favouring the consolidation of the anti-immigration industry.
The Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (Fomento), ACS Group, Tragsa, Red Cross, Babcock, Thales, ATOS, Inetum, Eiffage, Alonso Hipercas and Albie did not respond to any of the questions asked by Fundación porCausa and El Confidencial.
Who wins with Spain’s migration policies? This is the starting question of ‘Fronteras SA: la industria del control migratorio’ (Borders SA: the migration control industry). To approximate an answer, Fundación porCausa has extracted all the central government’s public procurement (Public Sector Procurement Platform and Official State Gazette) from January 2014 to April 2022. Among the contracts obtained, we filtered those that contained any of the more than 400 keywords related to the field of migration, from which we selected the 2,795 contracts obtained that make up our database. We decided to keep contracts for multiple-use products and services. For example, border scanners are used to combat irregular immigration, but also to detect smuggling or drug trafficking. We then structured the information, analysed it and created categories to get an overall picture.
The database is composed only of central government public contracts that have been published. Public contracts with a ‘confidential’ seal, as well as those that the government does not make public, are not included in this special section. Also excluded from this investigation are contracts awarded by European Union bodies, Autonomous Communities -with competences mainly in the area of reception- and city councils, as well as funds processed as subsidies -mainly used to finance services for the initial reception and integration of migrants and refugees-. Also excluded from this investigation are public budgets intended to cover fixed costs related to migration control, such as the salaries of Guardia Civil agents deployed in Ceuta and Melilla. Click here to learn more about the methodology and download the research database.