Immigration can be a political hot potato for governments and a headline generator for tabloid media. But moving beyond that, there are serious questions that governments must address as they struggle to create immigration policies that are robust enough to protect national interests, but sufficiently flexible to avoid putting off the average traveller or investor.

As the UK has found, border controls are about more than just security and facilitating passenger flow. Border controls are the first place that travellers experience when they arrive in a country, so the public’s perception of them is critical.

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At times over the past 12 months, UK border control policy has appeared to do little more than react to critical newspaper coverage. Headlines of 'Border control chaos as people are let in without the right checks' have been followed swiftly by 'Border control chaos as queues grow at major airports'.

It therefore came as no surprise that there were serious worries about border controls in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games. It was feared that hassles at the UK’s largest airport, Heathrow, had dented the country’s reputation. London mayor Boris Johnson added to the chorus of worries, expressing his "serious concern" about long queues for passport control at the airport. 

In a letter to UK home secretary Theresa May, Mr Johnson said the problems at Heathrow gave “a terrible impression of the UK”. He added: “It is extremely unfortunate that, in a time of economic difficulties, when I as mayor and the government are working so hard to attract inward investment to London and the UK, that our main port of entry is gaining such a poor reputation.”

London’s reputation as a welcoming place to do business and travel was in peril.

The Home Office drafted in extra trained and uniformed volunteers to staff immigration desks during the Olympic Games and cancelled summer leave to enforce the home secretary’s promise that full passport checks would be carried out on all travellers arriving in the country. These actions saved the day, and what had been forecast to be a disaster for UK plc turned into a pleasant and welcoming experience for travellers.

Facilitating flow

Many border control decision-makers are working in a tough climate of funding cutbacks combined with a need for robust security, good PR and swift passenger flow. At the heart of many strategies are international agreements to enable travel between countries using technologies such as ePassports (paper passports with electronic data that authenticates the traveller using their physical characteristics), biometrics and eGates (electronic border gates that assess a traveller’s biometric data). These are all being implemented to speed up throughput at airports worldwide.

Regional policies, such as the EU’s Schengen zone (which allows passengers to travel in and out of member states without border controls) and the US Immigration and Nationality Act, have helped accelerate crossborder travel and facilitate the movement of people and goods between neighbouring countries. This helps investors preparing to enter new markets.

On the whole, these initiatives have worked well. But they are only ever as secure as the weakest link in the system. For example, some critics have argued that security in the Schengen area is not sufficiently robust. Earlier this year, the then president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, delivered an ultimatum: he threatened to withdraw the country from the Schengen accord unless the EU hardened its immigration policy. He said: “At a time of economic crisis, if Europe doesn't pick those who can enter its borders, it won't be able to finance its welfare state any longer. We need a common discipline in border controls... We can't leave the management of migration flows to technocrats and tribunals.”

Over easy

Many countries are now making it easier for foreigners to cross their borders, either by granting visas on arrival or by offering visa-free travel to citizens from a growing number of countries. In October 2012, US secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano confirmed that Taiwan had joined 36 other countries in the US Visa Waiver Program, which permits visa-free travel to the US for eligible travellers visiting for 90 days or fewer for business or tourism.

“The announcement is a major step forward in our long-standing economic partnership with Taiwan,” said Ms Napolitano. “Taiwan’s participation in the Visa Waiver Program will not only stimulate tourism in the US, it will also enable us to work together to maintain the strictest security standards.”

In 2011, 18.3 million visits were made to the US via the Visa Waiver Program, accounting for more than 60% of the tourist and business travellers entering the country by air.

Emerging markets have also been rolling out the red carpet to foreigners, with a number of initiatives aimed at making it easier and more attractive to operate from their shores. For example, Malaysia introduced the Residence Pass-Talent (RP-T) in 2011, a 10-year pass for top foreign professionals enabling them to work and reside in the country. It has since extended the pass to include knowledge-based entrepreneurs.

Border control authorities are developing strategies that enable them to react effectively to the troughs and peaks in demand. These include peak seasonal periods, such as religious and summer holidays, as well as during major events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA football World Cup. To handle these extremes, many of them are turning to technologies such as eGates. Georg Hasse, a senior consultant at IT security specialist Secunet, says: “With the boom in passenger volumes and a growing need for more intelligence about who is arriving in a country – and leaving – there is an increasing demand for eBorder gates that are capable of carrying out extensive checks of passport and other identification documents’ electronic security features.

“The German BSI [federal office for information security] is running EasyPass at Frankfurt airport in collaboration with the German federal police. This builds on a pilot [study] which concluded in May 2010. During the pilot, the BSI and German government extensively evaluated the technology’s performance, using studies that were more rigorous than other similar schemes. EasyPass aims to provide detailed information about the security, efficiency and practicability of biometrics-based border controls. It also aims to reduce the workload of conventional border checkpoints and the amount of time that passengers have to spend waiting.” 

Electronic gates

Dubai International Airport is among the major hubs to have taken the eGate route. It initially rolled out a system based on biometric face recognition in its terminal three. The system matches biometric and passport details against traveller lists, in a process that is claimed to take fewer than 15 seconds. Speaking at the launch of the eGate system earlier this year, major general Mohammad Al Merri, head of the Dubai General Directorate for Residency and Foreign Affairs, said: “Working in an airport that is considered one of the fastest growing in the world represents a challenge for all of us in facilitating the entry and exit of passengers without affecting security standards.”

Travellers moving between Australia and New Zealand may have already encountered the biometric self-processing SmartGate. Phil Chitty, group manager for airports at the New Zealand Customs Service, says: “SmartGate is a stress-free way for New Zealand and Australian ePassport holders to enter both countries or leave New Zealand. All they need is their ePassport – the two-step SmartGate will do the rest.”

One week at the end of August 2012 saw more than 55,500 passengers travelling to and from New Zealand take advantage of SmartGate; the highest figure yet recorded on the system. Steps have been taken to widen use of the eGate by lowering the qualifying age. “Lowering the age for SmartGate users lets 120,000 more travellers use the kiosks every year, which benefits families with teenagers and high school groups [that] can self-process together,” says Mr Chitty.

Advanced intelligence

Another way to speed up passenger processing is to have more information about passengers before they arrive at the airport departure gate. “Airport authorities are improving processes with advanced passenger information,” says Detlef Houdeau, senior director of the business development identification, chip card and security business group at Infineon Technologies.

“This addresses government-to-government exchange of information, such as the passport, visa and basic flight information. Another tool to identify passenger risks is the passenger name record, which addresses airline-to-ground exchange of information, such as seat number, baggage weight and ticket payment.”

Another approach, which is still in its infancy, uses near-field communication (NFC) technology. This allows passengers to pass through airport checks, controls and gates using only their mobile phones. Earlier this year, Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, air transport IT and communications company SITA and telecoms firms Orange and BlackBerry launched a trial based on the technology. The phone effectively works as the passengers’ pass, enabling them to access car parking, the boarding area (via a premium access zone) and a premium passenger lounge. At the same time, passengers get up-to-the minute information such as changes to their flight times, departure hall or boarding gate. Renaud Irminger, director of SITA Lab, says: “Overall, a passenger using an NFC-enabled device can be processed faster than by any of the boarding processes available today.”

Jean-Michel Vernhes, CEO of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, says: “With NFC technology, the mobile phone simplifies the passage of the flyer through the airport. It now becomes a personalised tool, displaying the required information at the right moment; it also enables the flyer to better manage their time, optimising their choices. For Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, the approach is to give flyers access to leading-edge technologies that enhance and facilitate the passenger experience at the airport, and provide new premium services.”