The Migrants Files - The Money Trails
The Migrants Files - The Money Trails
By Various /

Sealing its borders to immigrants costs Europe’s taxpayers billions of euro a year. Policy implementation is costly, and the public purse has opened wide for a few select contractors. The Migrants’ Files project names some of the economic winners from Europe’s closed-door immigration policy.

When the horrors of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina shocked television viewers in the early 1990s, the European public could not look the other way. In response, many countries relaxed their entry policies.

But in 1997 Kurdish refugees fleeing the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein met a closed door into Europe. This was just as the Schengen Agreement came into force codifying the free movement of people within the EU. At the same time, Schengen established some very restrictive hurdles for migrants wishing to enter Europe. That policy is clearly overwhelmed by today’s realities, with disastrous consequences for millions of refugees and migrants.

In August 2013, a group of 15 European journalists, statisticians and software developers launched The Migrants’ Files project to acquire reliable, comprehensive data on the deaths of migrants seeking to enter Europe.

This time, Migrants’ Files team follows the money, at least some of the funds that flow through public and private hands as Europe struggles to contain the flood of migrants at its borders. We look at some of the costs “Fortress Europe” imposes on taxpayers – and reveal some of the economic winners from Europe’s closed-door immigration policy.

Border security: A policy creates an industry

According to UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, around sixty million people are currently on the move globally, in search of refuge. That’s the highest number of refugees since the end of the Second World War when much of Europe, east and west, lay in rubble.

In the first six months of 2014, which is the latest available data, 5.5 million people left their homes and fled to new shores. In all of 2014, some six hundred thousand people sought asylum in Europe. But to get there, they had overcome many considerable barriers, physical, financial and electronic. The latter includes military-grade technology supplied by privately held companies whose R&D programs have been financed by EU subsidies.

As a tool to implement policy, security research has been a budget item since the European Commission established a working group on this topic in 2003. Conspicuously missing from that’s select group are any representatives from the IOM (International Organization of Migration) or UNHCR. But four leading European arms manufacturers participate in the working group – Airbus (formerly EADS), Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE – as do the technology companies Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl and others.

The EU’s security research working group has met only twice. That was apparently often enough to cement the structure, objectives and ideology of the group’s security research agenda.[1]

A few arms and technology companies have reaped windfalls from the Europe’s immigration policy. The Migrants’ Files team ran the data, which means, in the first place, finding the data. The team analyzed 39 R&D projects financed by the EU or by ESA, the European Space Agency from 2002 to 2013 with a total funding of 225 million euro. All spent to protect Europe’s borders.

Europe’s restrictive immigration policy has been a windfall for the companies that serve it. They undertake ambitious projects, which often bear impressive names, like Mariss, Limes and Dolphin. Other projects like Operamar, Wimaas and Aeroceptor promise airtight border surveillance. And some focus on tightening the borders themselves — Staborsec, Effisec, Fastpass, and ABC4EU — or on better control technology (Ingress). Then there are Doggies, Sniffer, Sniffles and Snoopy, advanced olfactory sensors to better detect humans at border crossings. Two projects worked on border patrol robots, one intended for use at sea (Uncoss) and one on land (Talos).

The Migrants’ Files research reveals that three companies garnered most of the EC’s R&D budget for security. Of the 39 publicly funded projects, Airbus participated in ten, via 14 subsidiaries; Finmeccanica worked on 16 projects via 13 subsidiaries; and Thales tallied 18 projects, also through 13 subsidiaries.

 All data on research projects

Software: A favorite security budget item

R&D funding constitutes only a fraction of the public money spent on border security for Europe. Frontex, the EU’s border security agency, coordinates member states’ border patrols, as per to the Dublin Regulation. Since its launch in 2004, Frontex alone has gobbled up close to a billion euros.

Since 2011, the Eurosur program has aimed at sharing border management information and updates in real time. Eurosur’s implementation requires coordination centers that will cost close to 200 million euros. The tangible results from these multi-billion euro investments are rarely assessed.

As a case in point, consider Eurodac, the European fingerprint database. The system exemplifies the lack of accountability endemic to migration-related policy implementation. With transparency limited, we still can piece together a good impression of how this alleged solution has performed. And it’s not a pretty picture.

Designed to identify asylum applicants by their fingerprints, Eurodac should enable EU countries to determine whether an asylum applicant who has been “found illegally present within an EU country has previously claimed asylum in another EU” member state. That sounds like a worthy system but in fact at least ten people a year are wrongly deported due to false system hits in the fingerprint ID scanning devices. The true number may be far higher.

According to an employee of a leading scanning device manufacturer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, every fingerprint scanner is calibrated to produce a certain ratio of false hits. (The team’s source could not reveal the false hit settings for the Eurodac’s devices.) It is disturbing to note that all EU member states, plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, currently rely on this inherently, admittedly flawed identification system. And no one in government, in the media or in the corporations themselves seems concerned with the human costs of the system’s manifestly poor performance.

  All data on amounts spent

Hardware: Drones and boats and walls

Money for policing hardware has flowed briskly throughout the border security sector. Spain and Greece have spent over 70 million euro on boats, drones, off-road vehicles and other shiny and clever hardware to close their borders. And there’s always surveillance, a steady revenue stream for the chosen suppliers. Wall building is a growth industry, with Spain, Greece and Bulgaria investing heavily in erecting physical walls.

And building a wall is just the beginning. The walls surrounding the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, for instance, cost almost ten million euros a year to maintain.

The Italian government had a functioning arrangement whereby they paid Libyan strongmen to block refugees from leaving their territory en route to Italy. Some money went for detention centers or deportation flights. Since 2011, Italian taxpayers paid over 17 million euro to supply Libyan authorities with boats, training, night vision goggles, etc. to track refugees and migrants.

  All data on amounts spent

The high costs of deportation

For some reason, the largest single cost stemming from Europe’s closed immigration policy has been off the radar, until now. It isn’t hardware, nor is it software. It’s bureaucracy. Red tape is very expensive. Since 2000, the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland have deported millions of people. This has cost an enormous sum, at least 11.3 billion euro.

Various attempts have been made to measure the total costs of Europe’s asylum policies, but none has been made to assess the costs of deportations at the European level. Parliamentary committees in France and Italy tried to determine the costs of deportations. Their estimates were two to four times higher than those offered by the police.

Only Belgium records the costs of its deportations. None of the other countries contacted by the Migrants’ Files team were able to assess the full scope of their spending on deportations. In Sweden, only transport costs are tracked, not detention costs. The same goes for Switzerland, at least on a national level. In Germany, officials say that they did not have the capacity to calculate the total costs of deportations.

It is difficult to assemble good deportation data for Europe. Definitions of an individual’s status vary from country to country. What’s more, there are several ways to expel a non-citizen, from voluntary return to deportation. The European statistical office keeps a database of “returns following an order to leave,” yet neither Eurostat nor any other institution harmonizes national figures across Europe to learn precisely how many women and men are deported and at what cost. This performance data appears to be irrelevant for these authorities.

After carefully sifting through the available data, and acknowledging its deficits, The Migrants’ Files concludes that the cost of deportations in Europe is close to a billion euro per year.

 All data on deportations

What migrants pay traffickers

Despite grandiose high-tech systems, the militarization of the Greek, Italian, Bulgarian and Spanish borders and the deportation of millions of migrants, migration at Europe’s door has not abated. If anything, it has risen yet higher in 2015 as great swathes of the Middle East, southern Asia and Africa suffer from armed and violent power struggles and broken economies.

Since 2000, the best data suggests that some 1.2 million undocumented refugees and migrants have made the journey into Europe by sea and land, excluding air travel. Several million more entered by using faked passports or simply by overstaying their visas. For undocumented refugees, passage is costly.

Migrants’ payments for passage in total form large stream in the sub-economy created by Europe’s closed doors. How large? The Migrants’ Files estimates that over the past fifteen years, refuges have paid a staggering 16 billion euro to travel to Europe. That for so many, their journey ends by drowning at sea adds a sense of tragedy to the frustration many feel with current EU policy.

It’s unclear whether transit prices or facilitators’ margins have gone up since the civil war in Syria. Indeed, too little is known about how these migration facilitators operate. The governments of Syria and Libya, for instance, are believed to have organized refugee boats of their own, both as a source of revenue and as a bartering chip in negotiations with European states. And matters are not helped by Europe’s failure to distinguish between crass human traffickers and genuinely compassionate helpers. The latter are also considered criminals by most European legislators.

Migration solutions like a hundred thousand dollar speedboat run from Libya to Italy are apparently on offer but overall the transportation market is divided across national and racial lines. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa pay on average around 700 euro per person to ride down in the cargo holds of whatever boats are available, often with catastrophic results. Richer patrons from the Middle East may pay 2000 euro a head to travel on the same boat, but they are up on deck.

The most popular way to enter Europe remains by plane. So far, no solid data exists on the number of people who use planes as facilitators for slipping through Europe’s closed border. Anecdotes suggest that reaching Europe by air often involves a complex strategy. Iraqi refugees, for instance, can pay 16,000 euro to fly from Mosul to Paris via – and here’s the trick – Cayenne, Belem, Sao Paulo and Istanbul. Moroccan facilitators offer migrants a flight to Paris for five thousand euro that lets them bypass immigration authorities, instead using a hidden exit at Charles de Gaulle airport, an operation that obviously requires accomplices among airport staff and state administration.

 All data on money paid by refugees and migrants

Read the full methodology of the investigation.

The databases are made available under the Open Database License. The contents of the databases belong to their respective owners, make sure to check the sources.

If you wish to contribute, please contact us by email or through the Twitter hashtag #MigrantsFiles.


1: Read more on the EU security research programs in the 2009 Statewatch Neoconopticon report.


"Festung Europa": Kosten, Wege und Strukturen (Der Standard)

De miljardeneconomie achter Fort Europa (De Groene Amsterdammer)

Imigranci. Co Europa robi, żeby ich nie wpuścić? (Gazeta Wyborcza)

Kolik nás stojí „pevnost Evropa” (Český rozhlas)

Méditerranée : traverser, coûte que coûte (Libération)

Milliardenindustrie Menschenschmuggel (SRF)

Europa gasta 13.000 millones para frenar la inmigración, los traficantes ganan 16.000 (El Confidencial)

The Migrants' Files: Οι Ροές του Χρήματος (rbdata)

Så mycket kostar det att hålla flyktingar utanför EU (Sydsvenskan)

EU lägger miljarder på att utesluta andra (

Migranti, l'Eu ha speso 13 miliardi per fermarli Ma gli scafisti ne hanno incassati anche di più (L'Espresso)

So viel kostet die Festung Europa (Süddeutsche Zeitung)

По следите на парите, или колко струва миграционната политика на ЕС? (Dnevnik)

Fortress Europe: The Billion Dollar Machine That Keeps Migrants at Bay (Vice News)

The Migrants’ Files, 2: H Ευρώπη-Φρούριο κοστίζει ακριβά (ΕΝΘΕΜΑΤΑ)

Os números da vergonha (Visăo)

’Det er et netværk af kriminelle og tyve’ (Information)


Coordination: Journalism++

Research and code: Elaine Allaby, Michael Bauer (Der Standard), Ana Isabel Carvalho (Journalism++ Porto), Aleksander Derylo (BIQdata), Jakob Espersen, Marcin Gebala (BIQdata), Daniele Grasso (El Confidencial), Peter Grensund (Journalism++ Stockholm), Sylke Gruhnwald (SRF), Timo Grossenbacher (SRF), Markus Hametner (Der Standard), Kristian Holgersen, Alice Kohli, Ricardo Lafuente (Journalism++ Porto), Alexandre Léchenet (Libération), Vadim Makarenko (BIQdata), Jean-Marc Manach, Andrea Nelson Mauro (Dataninja), Jacopo Ottaviani, Adam Rodriques (Global Initiative), Lise Møller Schilder, Julian Schmidli (SRF), Katerina Stavroula (Radiobubble), Marta Urzedowska (Gazeta Wyborcza).

Research assistants: Clotilde Lavergne-Bril, Niklas Svedberg.

Edited by Roy Greenspan.

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The Migrants Files - The Money Trails