Dossier: Fragile Borders

Enabling Customs in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations

14 June 2023
By Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General, World Customs Organization

Fragile borders are areas where State agencies, particularly Customs, are unable to operate properly owing to the insecurity created by State or non-State armed groups. Although each fragile and conflict-affected situation (FCS) has its own specificities, similarities do exist across countries in terms of the role of trade as an economic resource for communities, the embeddedness of smuggling in social activities and the informal taxation levied on traders and cross-border flows of commodities by non-State armed groups such as terrorists, criminal gangs or guerrillas.

Although the presence of Customs in such areas poses challenges, it is crucial and should be supported by Governments with a view to ensuring a State presence that is not purely coercive but also fulfils an economic mission. Customs administrations operate as an interface between border security and the border economy. In addition to its efforts to prevent the illicit trafficking of prohibited and restricted commodities that may serve the purposes of armed groups (such as weapons, explosives and their precursors), Customs also ensures the deployment of economic missions that are critical in fragile borderlands. Customs can facilitate cross-border trade, implement fair revenue collection and adapt its anti-smuggling policies to take account of local conditions and needs. Through locally-tailored measures based on its deep knowledge of the area, Customs can ensure equal access to economic opportunities for all, preventing rent-seeking behaviours and the concentration of trade by a local elite, which often leads to local grievances. Last but not least, Customs can shed light on certain ongoing dynamics which often remain poorly understood and inadequately integrated into policy-making.

From research to an Action Plan

To support Customs administrations which are confronted with FCS, the WCO Secretariat started working with some administrations to analyse the role they play in the security architecture, the strategies they have deployed to meet challenges, the tools and equipment they use, and the relationships they have established with security forces. In 2016 it initiated field research in more than 14 countries, and in 2022 it published Customs, Security and Fragility: Practices and Recommendations from the North Africa, Near and Middle East Region. The Secretariat has also issued a Note on the role of Customs in fragile and conflict-affected situations, which highlights the specific issues encountered in fragile situations and offers several recommendations for tackling them.

Among the key recommendations presented in the Note are:

  • assess the financial and security requirements for defending Customs infrastructure from terrorist attacks and/or repairing any damage caused by conflict;
  • take account of the specific needs of border areas which may not necessarily be part of major trade routes;
  • ensure a fair trading system which is accessible to all;
  • make sure that humanitarian aid can cross borders smoothly and efficiently;
  • allow Customs to play a key role in security by ensuring that they have the necessary enforcement powers;
  • make sure that capacity building plans are based on a country’s own needs and demands rather than being driven by a donor agenda, as ownership is a key component of any successful capacity building effort.

When this edition of the magazine goes to print in June 2023, WCO Members will be about to discuss an Action Plan on Fragile Borders that should guide the WCO’s activities in this area from 2023 to 2026. The Action Plan focuses on five major domains, each with its own objective, namely:

  • Research, the objective being to continue to develop knowledge about the role of Customs in FCS;
  • Global advocacy and communication, where the objective is to enhance the understanding of governments, other security forces, stakeholders, partners and donors about the role of Customs in FCS;
  • Institutional arrangements and inter-agency cooperation, the objective being to strengthen Customs’ visibility and participation in national security policies;
  • Security of personnel and infrastructure, the objective being to strengthen the capacities of Customs to choose appropriate equipment and secure infrastructure;
  • Mobilization of Customs data and intelligence, with the objective of enabling Customs to acquire analytical capacity.

Content of this Dossier

For this edition of the magazine, we asked several administrations to present the challenges they are facing and the strategies they have adopted when under threat from terrorist groups, criminal gangs and guerrillas. We have also highlighted some initiatives and good practices.

We start with Cameroon Customs and the experiences of surveillance units based in Cameroon’s South-West Region, where separatist groups have been confronting Cameroon’s defence and security forces since 2016. The tactics and operational adjustments adopted by the surveillance units to complete the various missions assigned to them by the public authorities are of great interest.

Our second article takes us to Haiti, where armed groups are responsible for an almost permanent climate of terror. The Customs administration explains the impact of the country’s extremely fragile situation on its functioning, and sets out some possible approaches to this problem. One very  interesting point is that even though the volume of trade has declined, the revenue collected by Customs in Haiti has increased significantly in recent months; this is because the problems encountered by certain Customs offices have led many importers to switch to other Customs offices, where inspection activities have been expanded accordingly.

Next, we have two articles focusing on institutional arrangements and inter-agency cooperation schemes. The first, by Argentina Customs, explains the collaboration framework which is in place with the National Gendarmerie, the Argentine Naval Prefecture, the Airport Security Police and the Federal Police, as well as measures taken to strengthen ties and build trust between the agencies concerned. The second article, by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, presents the concept of the Fusion Centre, whereby national partners come together in a collaborative effort to share resources, expertise and information in order to maximize their ability to detect, prevent and respond to terrorist and criminal activity.

An article by the French and Nigerian Customs Administrations then looks more specifically at training, and presents the Borders Academy which is being built in Niger to train the internal security services of West African countries that have experienced a deterioration in security in their border areas. At the Academy, these services will acquire a core body of knowledge and learn common techniques to ensure their interoperability and their ability to counter violent extremism without hindering economic development.

The final article in the Dossier looks at the constraints faced by humanitarian organizations – which are among the actors operating in fragile and conflict-affected situations – and at how Customs administrations can better support their work.

This is not the first time we have addressed the issue of fragile borders in the magazine, and some aspects of this topic have been covered in articles published in previous editions, which I invite you to consult[1]. The use of satellite imagery and earth observation tools for analysing border dynamics is especially interesting. The WCO Secretariat encourages Customs to examine the use of geodata for more effective border management and we published an article in 2022 explaining how Niger Customs recently financed a study into the use of satellite imagery to reorganize operational services and monitor activities in areas which are difficult to access.

I would like to end by offering my sincere thanks to the contributors to this Dossier, and indeed to all the other contributors to the magazine. I trust that you will enjoy reading their insightful articles.

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