Features

Collaborating Across Borders for Border Security

Tony Smith, chair of the less-than-a-year-old International Border Management and Technologies Association (IBMATA), on the association's inaugural conference, and why collaboration is a main focus.

International Border Management and Technologies Association Chair Tony Smith

Before he retired from his position in 2013 as director general of the U.K. Border Force, Tony Smith, CBE, was frequently asked to speak at events around the world about border management. He said he found “real value in being in charge of a border agency in one country speaking to people who were in charge of border agencies in other countries, because obviously my inbound is your outbound, my imports are your exports. There’s quite a lot to be gained, I think, by collaboration between immigration and border agencies around the world. I learned all that from my time in government.”

That time spanned four decades, and included a stint as head of Ports of Entry in Citizenship & Immigration Canada during 9/11. When Smith retired from government service, he continued to receive invitations to participate as a chairman, panelist, or guest speaker at various events to share his experiences, “because I had quite an interesting career,” he said. “That’s really where [the idea for International Border Management and Technologies Association] began for me — I could see value in having an event that brought together different border agencies around the world.”

The more events that he participated in, the more he realized that “some are better than others,” and that some organizations were really only putting on events “for profit, really, to try to bring in a lot of sponsors and make a lot of money,” he said, “and the quality of the event itself really sort of wasn’t their top priority.”

The ones that struck him as high quality were those that made collaboration a central focus. “Certainly for me, the most important thing was to create an opportunity for people who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise come together to discuss areas of mutual interest,” he said, “in this case, border security. I felt that countries had a lot to learn from one another. For me, the real value of an event is to try to bring the border agencies together in my world, so that you would get U.S. CBP [Customs and Border Protection] talking to U.K. Border Force talking to the Croatian border guard, and potentially the Singaporeans about how they are dealing with international threats and passenger growth and technology, for example.”

International Border Management and Technologies Association (IBMATA) officially launched last November, “because we didn’t think there was anyone really out there on the event circuit that was really doing that,” Smith said, “not in a coordinated way.” That’s not to say that there aren’t “some very, very good events,” he added. The “platinum” industry event, he said, is the International Summit on Borders, held in Washington, D.C. every year (the 2018 conference was held June 19–20).

“But that only happens once a year,” he said, “and I get lots of requests from different countries that are not so big — not necessarily America or the U.K., but perhaps countries like Croatia or Malaysia who say, ‘What’s going to happen next? How do we keep things going in between conferences?’”

Inaugural Border Management & Technologies Summit
Responding to those requests, IBMATA’s inaugural Border Management & Technologies Summit 2018 was held May 16–17, in Zagreb, Croatia. The newest country to join the European Union, Croatia “is under quite a lot of pressure there to make sure they have a secure border,” Smith said. “People coming into Croatia are also coming into the European Union, and can then go on and travel around all of the EU without having any more border controls.”

Croatia’s extensive land borders with different countries put it at a tipping point in the migrant crisis, “where significant numbers — like over a million migrants a couple of years ago — crossed over into the EU illegally, and many of them came through Croatia,” he said. “Croatian border police are very interested in how to manage a land border like that — what are the sorts of things that you can do to mitigate threats? We said, ‘Well, one place you could look is the U.S.,’ because [of its] long land-to-land borders with Canada and Mexico.”

Without this conference, Smith said, the chances of the Croatian border police ever speaking to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to learn about its systems to process people and cargo would probably “be zero.”

A total of 60 attendees “from seven or eight different countries” participated in the event, which, owing to its intimate size, he said, came to be something of “a workshop rather than a conference. The Croatian border police kindly agreed to host the event. The head of the Croatian border guard delivered the keynote speech and they arranged a visit to the Croatian/Bosnian border for people to observe operations there.”

In addition to governmental representatives from the U.S. and U.K., customs agency representatives attended from Finland, the Czech Republic, and other Balkan countries — in particular Montenegro, Smith said, “which is very close to Albania, and is potentially a main route for international organized crime and drug trafficking.”

Inter-governmental entities were also part of the conference, including Europol, the European police organization that deals with anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking in the EU. “We also had something called eu-LISA,” Smith said. “They are responsible for technology across the EU external frontier, the implementation of technology including [information-sharing databases] and entry/ exit systems, etc.”

‘The Technologies Bit’
It can’t be called IBMATA without “the technologies bit,” Smith said. “We have a number of companies that sponsor our events,” he said, taking booths in an exhibit space next to the session areas. “They are involved in providing modern technology for border management — things like automated border-controls kiosks and e-gates, document readers, data-analytic systems to manage watch lists and intelligence, and others with digital technology, mobile passport apps and that kind of stuff. Part of the solution to border management is technology — it’s not the entire solution, but it is part of it.

“That comes back to the collaboration bit about where we have good suppliers who can help border agencies,” Smith added. “We’re just matchmakers, I suppose, really, between reputable suppliers of technology and interested border agencies on different topics in border management.”

IBMATA exists to organize events about border management in different parts of the world not served by other industry events and to keep best practices and knowledge about border management flowing around major events like the International Summit on Borders. But it’s a new organization struggling with a common association challenge: how to keep the community engaged between its own events.

“What we want to try and do is keep the conversation going in between conferences,” Smith said. “Everyone has a great conference in Croatia and everybody gets to know one another and then everybody goes home.” By maintaining a website that gives control agencies an opportunity to communicate with one another online in between conferences, IBMATA enables a year-round dialog.

That’s the direction Smith wants “ to go with this, but it’s very new. We’ve only just started.” He said one way to continue the conversation has been to open up the association to academics, and he is inviting professors who study border management to post articles on IBMATA’s website for others to comment on.

“We are trying to establish a community like that. It’s not there yet, but what we want to do is to make collaboration work, and you have to do more than have an event every year, I think,” he said. “You need to try to keep the pot boiling between events and try and keep in touch with the same people, and try and keep the network going. If we don’t do that, then it all goes very flat and everybody just goes back into their various countries and departments and everything kind of dries up.”

As a not-for-profit, Smith said, there aren’t a lot of resources to work with. “We have to rely very much on voluntary contributions. Fortunately for me, there are people who are interested in writing stuff about borders who won’t want money for doing so. You know, if we could gain the trust of the border agencies, which is a big thing, and they are prepared to have a conversation with one another over a secure website on different topics, we can then stage our next event on maybe something completely different.”

Going Forward
IBMATA’s next event — in New Delhi, India, next month, hosted by the Indian border guard — will indeed have a different angle. It will focus on identity management and biometrics, “because they’ve got a national identity system in India that’s not in place in many other countries,” Smith said. “That will be a different topic, and that may invite slightly different people. You see where I’m going with this — we try and find themes that we know [will resonate] because we go to so many conferences. I’m always trotting off to speak at or attend some conference or other. We know what the main areas of global interest are to border agencies. We gather a lot of information of what different countries are doing in different areas, so we have a lot of information. That helps us when we’re putting together an agenda for our next conference, to focus upon what should be the main topics of discussion that we should set up as a panel discussion perhaps, or have a speaker presentation and a conversation afterwards.”

IBMATA takes its direction for each conference based on the needs of each host country. In Croatia, the challenge of forced migration was a big focus. “It was really how do you deal with very, very large numbers of people turning up at your border. That’s what happened in Croatia. I thought it was such a fascinating story — what would you do if that happened in your part of the world? Everybody’s got a story to tell.”

In India, the conference will explore that region’s own forced migration story: the Rohingya Muslim crisis, Smith said, “the biggest refugee crisis of all time. Not many of us get to hear very much about it, but we will be finding about how they dealt with it.”

No matter where IBMATA meets, a main goal is to provide solutions around facilitation. “How do we get genuine people? How do we use technology to identify genuine people and genuine goods that are crossing our borders?” Smith said. “Because 99.9 percent of people and goods crossing borders are actually perfectly legitimate and they’re perfectly entitled to cross. We’ve got more and more people, and more and more stuff crossing borders than ever before and that’s going to continue to rise. So, how can technology help us to manage that increasing volume without exposing us to unnecessary risks?”

And that leads to “the second part of the conversation,” he said, which is: What does the future hold for border control? “I quite often get asked what border control’s going to look like in 10, 20, 30 years time because it’s very much a changing picture. It changes at a different pace in different countries, but everybody’s really trying to do the same thing,” Smith said. “Everybody’s trying to facilitate genuine trade and genuine traffic, but stop the bad stuff and the bad guys.”

To learn more about IBMATA, visit ibmata.org.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.