External Action

Racial profiling at borders will not help counter terrorism

Michael Privot / Feb 2016

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans and European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. Photo: European Union


In the fight against terrorism, Member States like quick and easy solutions, which are more of a tick-the-box exercise than a meaningful long term plan. Additional border controls have become a leitmotiv of both the European Union and its Member States in recent weeks, in a purported attempt to “save Schengen”.

The European Commission recently proposed a set of measures to manage the EU’s external borders and protect the Schengen zone, including introducing mandatory systematic checks for all people entering or exiting the Schengen zone. The checks on EU citizens will be introduced against databases, in order to verify that persons arriving do not represent a threat to public order and internal security. Should data protection be guaranteed, these additional checks are reasonable.

The Commission’s proposal to conduct targeted checks, based on “risk assessments”, instead of systematic checks at some land and sea border crossings with higher traffic rates, is more problematic.

The list of common risk indicators established by the European Commission is troubling because it is based on travel patterns and specific person characteristics that could be discriminatory. It is also kept secret, which means we do not know whether ethnic or religious characteristics are part of the criteria. Applying these indicators is already part the mandate of the EU border agency Frontex and national border guards.

The problem is that border authorities are currently not given sufficient resources to undertake systematic checks - currently controls range from 2% to 25% maximum on the EU’s main external borders. They therefore risk using these questionable risk indicators, or worse, more subjective criteria such as physical appearance, names, home address, nationality, or place of birth, to stop and interrogate people.

Without additional training, monitoring and human rights safeguards, this risk of racial profiling - singling out people solely on the basis of their racial, ethnic or religious characteristics - will be all too real. Existing discriminatory practices are already a reality at borders and in the context of general police controls.

To effectively counter terrorism and avoid risks of racial profiling, EU Member States must therefore implement systematic checks for all people. This will require Member States to improve and invest in human and technological resources to process information from multiple databases in a short time.

The European Commission should also ensure that border guards do not use ethnic and religious criteria as risk indicators and receive human rights and non-discrimination training. They need to be made aware that more discriminatory checks will not improve their efficiency in catching terrorists. The Commission should also carry out checks (without prior warning) of border guards’ compliance with their regulation.

The fight against terrorism requires time and investment in effective resources. Stopgap measures such as profiling and risk indicators simply do not work, on top of running counter to human rights.

Michael Privot

Michael Privot

February 2016

About this author ︎►