Guest post by Philippe M. Frowd, a doctoral candidate in international relations at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, whose research examines border security measures in West Africa as a form of state building. In his dissertation, Philippe focuses on Spain’s role in preventing irregular migration from the region, the EU’s assistance to reinforce border infrastructures, and the growing use of biometric registration practices in national ID, passports, and visas.

The ongoing hardening and thickening of borders in Europe and North America is relatively well documented. Over the last decade, scholars and activists have tracked the intensification of control at various border points including detention zones, passport control, and the high seas. My research builds on the orientation and critical energies of this work, examining a similar proliferation of borders taking place in West Africa. Throughout the first six months of 2013, I conducted fieldwork in Senegal and Mauritania, investigating three interrelated cases: Spanish efforts to stop irregular migration, EU funding for border post construction in Mauritania, and the use of biometric technologies in both countries. Overall, I interviewed about 50 security officials of various levels, staff in international organizations, smugglers, and migrants.

EU representative Hans-Georg Gerstenlauer meets Guardia Civil officers in Nouakchott (Photo: Jemal Oumar, Magharebia News Agency)
A major assumption underpinning my research is that borders are more than simply ‘lines in the sand.’ This is almost a matter of consensus in critical border studies, but I build on this assumption to ask how the practice of bordering actually takes place in countries such as Senegal and Mauritania. What I discovered from preliminary mappings and from interviews is that the thickening and hardening of borders in these countries relies on similar practices to those observed in the global north: airport security, biometric registration, training of security forces, and intensified naval patrols. The implementation of these practices makes borders into dense institutional spaces. For instance, decisions to include or exclude in Mauritania are made at the discretion of the border officer but also by information provided by a UK-funded risk analysis centre in the capital Nouakchott. Similarly, Senegal’s navy patrols are coordinated from the capital Dakar but often rely on information shared by Spain or regional partners through the Seahorse command centre in Las Palmas (Canary Islands). These projects make the border heterogeneous and proliferated but also demonstrate the logics of intervention and capacity building that set border control in West Africa apart from similar practices in Europe and North America.
A Guardia Civil boat in Dakar (Photo: Alain Lamotte, Creative Commons)
The idea that border security is a question of capacity directly shapes routines of border control in Senegal and Mauritania. Bilateral cooperation as well as interventions by organizations such as the European Union and International Organization for Migration (IOM) explicitly act to reinforce the abilities of local security services and bureaucracies to autonomously manage their territories and populations. For example, Spanish border control intervention in West Africa grew dramatically in the wake of a spike in irregular migration to the Canary Islands in the mid-2000s. Spain signed bilateral agreements with Senegal and Mauritania relating to interception patrols and migrant repatriation and has worked to improve local capacity to stop irregular migration and transit. Spain has indirectly improved collaboration between Senegal’s police, gendarmerie, air force, and navy by bringing them together for the daily operation of that country’s naval surveillance command centre. Through the Guardia Civil, Spain also provides capacity through permanent naval and aerial patrol units stationed in Dakar (Senegal) and Nouadhibou (Mauritania) as well as training and equipment donations through the EU-funded Project West Sahel.

Such interventions seek to shore up capacity and rationalize border management, but they are not value-neutral: training and equipment dictate approaches to border control. The proliferation of borders is therefore reliant on a proliferation of ideas about who should control borders and how—what we could call ‘cultures of border control.’ Training transmits worldviews about what security problems are important, while equipment sets path dependencies for particular approaches to responding to these threats. During the course of my research, I encountered a hybrid worldview of border security as encompassing control (e.g., improving capacity through training) as much as care (e.g., more patrols to save more migrants) that was shared by interveners and intervened.

Why is this important? By asking the ‘who’ question about border control, we see that the proliferation of borders is the result of institutional and professional decisions and policies spanning global and local concerns. Paying attention to this interplay reveals the unique nature of border control in West Africa: that its everyday practices are underpinned in large part by concerns about capacity to control flows at the border and beyond. Investigating the ways—training, equipment, and more—through which this capacity is reinforced shows us how border governance in practice relies on competing ideals and visions of care and control.

Want to start a discussion about this topic? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Frowd PM (2014) Border Control Intervention in West Africa: Thinking Beyond the Global North. Available at: (Accessed [date]).