‘To say that Borderpol was “greatly influenced by Interpol” would be an exaggeration’

Thomas Tass

Guardians of the gates

As the organisation at the forefront of international efforts to thwart terrorist movement, Borderpol brings together police and immigration agencies from around the world to pool expertise on security issues. Thomas Tass, executive director and interim chair of Borderpol, speaks to Global.  Borderpol is a global network for the international border security and homeland protection community, with members including border agencies, armed forces, immigration services, police forces and government departments from around the world. Formed in 2003, the organisation lobbies governments and other international organisations on behalf of its members on matters affecting national and international security

Global: Borderpol was greatly influenced by Interpol. How are the two organisations different?

Thomas Tass: To say that Borderpol was “greatly influenced by Interpol” would be something of an exaggeration. The concept of a border organisation devoted to serving the needs of national services and agencies that were the ‘guardians of the gates’ most certainly was not created in an effort to replicate the venerable Interpol. Interpol was created in 1923 as the International Criminal Police to further cross-border co-operation when it came to solving crimes and ensuring that such investigations could overcome legal and jurisdictional hurdles through police co-operation. The founders of our organisation never had any intention of creating a transnational policing body engaging in investigative work or border enforcement. 

It is true, however, that some commonality of principles exists as a direct result of a series of bilateral discussions, both formal and informal, that took place with the world-famous police organisation in Lyon, Budapest and Zagreb during what I would call our “genesis years”, from 2000 to 2002. The fact is, however, that Borderpol was more closely associated and aligned with the mission and vision of the International Border Police Conference (IBPC), which was a free-form voluntary association of national border services created in 1992 under the aegis of the government of Hungary and managed the Hungarian Border Guards (the Hungarian Border Guards were disbanded in 2008 and the IBPC’s final meeting took place in Budapest in June 2012). From 2004 to June 2012, the relationship between the IBPC and Borderpol was one of mutual support and co-operation. 

The IBPC was formed in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union and responded to the trans-border co-operation vacuum that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe as a consequence. The Warsaw Pact was no more and along with that came the end of border management and frontier security commonly known as the Iron Curtain. During the genesis years, border security and migration management was buffeted by world history. Looking back at the outstanding issues of the day, it is important to understand in the context of 2013 that there was a plethora of agencies and organisations that had something to do with border issues. These include border guards, border police, immigration officials, customs, coastguards and navies. In addition, many airports and ports had private security companies and airport/ port staff. 

The challenge at the time was that there were little or no interdisciplinary activities linking these organisations together on a daily basis. On the international stage you had the World Customs Organization looking after revenue protection issues, and the International Organization for Migration, which was focused on migration resettlement issues. But no organisation existed to bring together all the elements of effective border management within an ongoing framework. The terrorist attack on the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed everything and set the wheels in motion for the creation of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security, as well as the reorganisation of numerous other national agencies in other countries, which continues to this day. 

Borderpol and the IBPC decided in 2003 to work together to promote and expand the concept of transnational co-operation in border security and migration management. A co-operation agreement was signed in December 2004, establishing Borderpol’s Budapest EU Secretariat Office. This relationship continued until June 2012 when the IBPC was subsumed by the EU agency Frontex. Borderpol, however, continues to enjoy a special relationship with the government of Hungary, which, since 2004, has supported the EU Secretariat Office in Budapest, which is currently managed by retired army officer Col Zoltán Szabó. 

Let me emphasise that Borderpol was created to fill a wide interagency/interdisciplinary gap that existed in the late 1990s and, frankly, still exists to some extent today. We have successfully bridged a plethora of operational and communications gaps with regard to issues concerning cross-border security and migration management. This has been done in a demonstrably effective manner by providing non-partisan consultative services and educational opportunities to both the public and industry sectors. 

In the multidisciplinary world of border management, state sponsored and fiscally maintained legacy intergovernmental bodies, such as the World Customs Organization; the UN and its various directorates; the International Organization for Migration; the International Air Transport Association; and many other smaller regional players in Europe and Asia, dynamically represent their particular constituencies and carry out mandated missions. However, they do not manage ongoing interdisciplinary programmes that are so vital to the multidisciplinary paradigm of work conducted at borders around the world, including matters of national security, environmental protection, immigration processing and international refugee issues – to name just a few. 

Like Interpol, Borderpol is completely apolitical and adheres to the UN principles of Universal Human Rights. Unlike Interpol, funding of our operations does not come from ‘member states’ because there are no such members. Our organisation is a 21stcentury hybrid that is a fusion of currently serving and former border management professionals. This group is augmented with experts from the diplomatic and policing communities as well as academics and industry representatives from around the world. 

Born in the internet age, Borderpol has utilised the full potential of modern communications and promotional opportunities. An example of this was our first international conference and exhibition last year, which brought together a broadly representative group of the most senior of border management policy and programme managers. 

A number of senior officials from Western European border policing services have suggested that Borderpol does not complement but rather complicates the work of existing European Union organisations. Can you comment on this?

It is flattering to know that Borderpol is being discussed by senior officials around Europe, but the idea that we are confusing anyone seems incongruous. The simplest way to clarify things for anybody who is confused about what we are, is to state what we are not. Firstly, we are not a European organisation, we are an international organisation that was formally registered with the government of Canada as a not-for-profit professional body in March 2003. The founders were from Canada, the United States, Hungary and the United Kingdom. 

Secondly, Borderpol is not an operational agency; we have no permanent staff, no operational role and no political affiliations. Contrast this with Frontex, which is a European operational agency with a clear European mandate to protect European external borders and is directly answerable to the European Commission (EC). Wholly funded by the EC, it plans, co-ordinates, implements and evaluates joint operations conducted, using member states’ staff and equipment at the external borders. 

Borderpol exists to provide niche services to the global border management community, which could include European groups. But since our charter was approved, we have scrupulously avoided competing with the existing programmes of any recognised international organisation. 

The second World Borderpol Congress will be held in London in December. Technologies and travel schemes to ease the movement of low-risk travellers and business people are among the themes under discussion. Can you tell Global more about these technologies and schemes, and how Borderpol determines whether someone is a ‘low-risk traveller’?

Once again, as we are not an operational agency we are not involved in determining who is and who is not a ‘low-risk traveller’, but there are some schemes in place and developing around the world that we would clearly encourage. Low-risk traveller programmes are linked to so-called ‘profiling’, which is often a misrepresented concept in the media. 

In this respect I like to use the banking system as an example of generally accepted ‘profiling’. For instance, when bankers do a credit check on an individual before deciding on the merits of a loan application, there is a process that takes place. 

A similar exercise is necessary when deciding which traveller is a low-risk case and which is not. It makes sense for a regular middle-aged traveller, with baggage, who books a return flight, with a credit card, to be classed as low risk. A man in his late teens or early 20s, booking a one-way ticket to the USA, in cash, with no baggage, should be seen as a higher risk. Pre-screening passengers when they book their flight, and then fast-tracking lower-risk passengers through security at the airport, makes sense and speeds up the process for all. This information is already being collected as part of the booking process but again it means border agencies, airports, immigration, airlines, and security and software integrators working together create an effective working system. ‘Low-risk’ programmes do not exclude ‘low-risk’ passengers from security checks at the airport, but they do allow border agencies to target more resources to higher-risk passengers and so speed up the process for all. 

What were the key outcomes of the first conference in 2012, and what do you hope to achieve at this year’s congress?

Last year’s conference was a great success in achieving one of our key missions, that is bringing together multi-disciplined stakeholders from across the border management community to discuss shared issues and experiences in an open and frank manner. The closed workshop for government personnel only was another highly successful innovation that gave border agencies the opportunity to discuss issues behind closed doors, which has led to regular scheduled meetings between the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and border attachés in London to discuss ongoing issues. 

At this year’s event it is UKBA’s stated aim to use the event to create a framework in which they can collaborate and co-operate with their international agency partners to set up processes and procedures which are more in tune with partner programmes and policies. 

Partnerships, co-operation and agreements appear to be key elements of Borderpol’s plan, though these have mainly been with governments, intergovernmental organisations and academic institutions. Is there anything private companies and civil society can do to help?

It is the private sector that brings forward the sort of technological innovations that are needed to ensure security and facilitate the free movement of people and goods going forward. That means that an open dialogue and communication between agencies and industry partners is a crucial part of the future of border management. Again, we see our role as a facilitator of that communication process via our events, consultancy and publications. 

The public always has a role in security, which is largely one of vigilance. But it also has a role in patience and understanding for the necessary security measures in place at border crossings. 

The border protection community is notoriously secretive, but can you give some examples of Borderpol’s key achievements to date?

Indeed, the border management community is notoriously secretive. Reasons for this are self-evident as the various transnational efforts to thwart terrorist travel and other forms of criminality have become front and centre in the border security programme. 

For this year we are managing three “3C” events in Hungary, Canada and the United Kingdom. There will be a series of discussions and workshops in London in December and there were specialised workshops in Budapest in September and in Vancouver in the same month. But probably our greatest achievement is to do what we have done with only a strong cadre of dedicated volunteer members. 

One last point is to say that if the founders of Borderpol had not created this niche organisation back in 2003, it would have been necessary for others to do so. The future requires a fully supported international multi-disciplined body with a specific mandate for improving border management at a global level. 

In the years ahead, the border management paradigms will no doubt change. Borderpol will change and adjust to those changing paradigms. Better technologies, more effective co-operative links and educational opportunities will shape the future of our organisation. Our motto is ‘Famam extendere factis‘ – that is Latin for ‘We extend our fame by our deeds’ – rest assured that my colleagues and I at Borderpol will continue the work started over ten years ago to the very best of our abilities.

About the author:

Thomas Tass is executive director and interim chair of Borderpol


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