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Protecting the UAE's borders

By John Coyne

There should be little doubt that the UAE has managed to develop a unique and sustainable migration strategy that, for the most part, meets its economic needs.

This strategy has also served it well in terms of disrupting the influence of dangerous, destructive and destabilising ideologies.

However, it needs to take note of Europe’s 2015 migration crisis if it’s to be prepared for future challenges.

In a region in perpetual conflict, next to a continent experiencing endemic corruption, abject poverty and rapid population growth, the UAE is a success story by most standards. This success also serves as a magnet for those in the Middle East, Africa and Asia seeking a better life: be that in terms of safety or economic opportunity.

For 40 years, strong economic factors have exerted an almost gravitational pull for regular and irregular migration to the UAE. Put simply, many potential migrants dream of the UAE as a country where the streets are paved in gold.

Global interconnectedness and integration are key dynamics that have influenced UAE’s economic success.

This success, along with the nation’s enviable achievements in terms of social cohesion have not come from a United States style isolationist strategy, nor European multiculturalism but socially constructed tolerance.

The UAE has not simply opened its borders to the free movement of people and trade. Rather, its strategists have developed world class border security capabilities.

From its land borders, to its ports and airports, Emirati border security focuses on measures that facilitate trade and travel.

So, what are the lessons it needs to learn from Europe?

In 2014, the scale of irregular migration to Europe via Central Mediterranean attracted headlines. 

The 280,000 illegal border crossings in that year was described as the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. However, that figure was broken in 2015 with the arrival of an estimated one million individuals. The number of refugees and migrants arriving on Europe’s shores revealed "serious deficiencies" at parts of the EU’s external borders.

The 2015 European mass migration crisis illustrated that to deal with extraordinary border security policy challenges governments must quickly and strategically allocate additional resources. 

This crisis has also illustrated how difficult it is for governments to identify the tipping point at which day-to-day border security challenges become extraordinary policy challenges.

Sensitive cross government intelligence sharing is central to the discovery of early warnings for such challenges.

For the UAE, irregular migration has national security implications that could affect social cohesion and economic growth. Its future irregular migration policy challenges could take many forms. There is of course the possibility of mass migration flows following natural disaster, civil unrest or conflict. Then again a gradual build-up of the countries irregular migrant population is also likely to present just as many national security implications. Border security agencies can’t be expected, on their own, to disrupt or mitigate all border risk or threats all of the time. 

Arguably border, national and domestic security policymakers need to work together to identify the most efficient and effective strategies to disrupt these threats and risks, whatever they may be.

Collaborative and integrated border security strategies will ensure that the UAE’s national security resources are focused on managing risks and disrupting threats, rather than on building walls.

To deal with its future border security challenges, the UAE will need to be able to rapidly deploy capabilities in response to evolving threats, risks or opportunities. 

It’s this kind of organisational agility that will allow border agencies to deal with evolving irregular migration challenges. The challenge presented here is that to be effective, border security strategy needs to be integrated into whole of government national security strategy.

Dr John Coyne is Head of Border Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. This piece is drawn from his recent presentation to the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defence Border 3I Leadership Summit on Protecting 21st Century Borders.