Dialogue takeaways and call to action for investors on the Border & Surveillance Industries

Human Rights, Our events, Climate disruption

We are happy to release the summary slides from an online dialogue on the Border & Surveillance Industries which Preventable Surprises hosted in March 2022.

The dialogue is part of the Border & Surveillance Industries (BSI) Stewardship Project launched in October 2021, in response to the private sector’s increased global involvement in carrying out refugee policy obligations on behalf of governments. Companies are contracted to provide the hardware, software, and services to enable the containment, exclusion, surveillance, transportation, and detention of migrant populations. In December 2021, Preventable Surprises published a discussion note highlighting the legal and reputational risks investors face when investing in the BSI.

The event facilitated thoughtful exchange among investors, academics and concerned NGOs, convening over sixty committed experts from four continents. Participants learned from the direct experience of Elahe Zivardar, a refugee incarcerated in a privately-run prison in Nauru for six years. Investors engaged with the leadership of organizations working on the frontlines of militarized borders and ‘hostile environment’ migration policy, and with investor peers who have taken the lead on building out coordinated investment and stewardship strategies linking migration policy and human rights expectations.

Participants raised important questions for investors to develop strategic approaches to migrant rights, such as:

  • Should parts of the Border & Surveillance Industries exist at all as private businesses, such as the for-profit indefinite detention of migrant women and children?
  • The scope of intervention: should investors seek to prevent, or instead to correct human rights violations?
  • Red lines: What is an absolute no for an investor in these companies? What would drive economic divestment – or ethical exclusion?
  • What collaborations and partnerships could enable systemic stewardship responses?
  • Which types of company engagement require a regional or country-specific focus? What are the most effective strategies for engaging companies with global operations?
  • What level of agency do investors have, vis-a-vis the role of policymakers and the behavior of corporate actors?

Participants agreed that meaningful change in the treatment of migrants at the G7 and beyond will require a more coordinated, public investor voice. All investors can bring migrant rights into their existing stewardship and responsible investing programs. They can build on the leadership of their peers (see below) and learn from NGOs on the frontlines. There is also significant overlap and potential for collaboration between investors working specifically on the topic and those active with human rights, private prisons, technological surveillance, personal freedoms and democracy women and children’s rights, and climate change. Investors with Paris Agreement-aligned pledges should take notice: the Paris Agreement specifically refers to migration and human mobility, calling for States, and non-state actors to respect and promote the rights of migrants. But this has yet to be incorporated into investor climate strategy or public policy engagement in support of climate action. Further, investors can reassess how populist political narratives on migration increase the risk of human rights violations at the borders.

While the dialogue did not seek to establish a consensus, this blog offers four takeaways on why investors should be concerned, and how they can act.

1. Stewardship flags material human rights risks linked to militarized borders

A range of investor-led shareholder resolutions at the world’s largest technology companies, including Thomson Reuters, Microsoft, Amazon requesting a review of their cooperation with border services indicates scope for more expansive engagement. For example Thomson Reuters responded to a multiyear investor campaign by working to align its business practices with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and has launched a company-wide human rights impact assessment of global operations, products, and services, including studying human rights abuses enabled by the contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Microsoft responded to similar investor requests and is in the process of conducting a human rights due diligence review run by an external legal expert. These developments represent important shifts in company and investor awareness of human rights risk. Investors have also engaged with transport and logistics firms including Qantas Airways, and successfully pushed for pension funds and banks to wind up lending relationships with private prison operators. These engagements have often focused on individual facilities or countries, but many of the companies operate globally. More joined-up analysis across technology, private security, surveillance, and logistics firms that participate in migrant control can enable lasting change. At present, many of these companies continue to be involved in high-risk business lines with established or potential human rights violations in the border context. With engagement on human rights by large pension funds still nascent, there is significant room for progress across asset classes.

2. Looking beyond the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) and addressing government procurement power

Endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council over a decade ago in 2011, the UNGPs are a guiding authority on business obligations to respect human rights. They apply to privatized and outsourced border security operators and their investors. However, their application by companies and investors remains wildly inconsistent. Shortcomings in global voluntary standards and frameworks on human rights and on refugee policy, indicate the need for investors to do more to ensure corporate conduct aligns with voluntary standards. Investors can strategically ask governments to ensure human rights provisions are embedded in contracts with private security and tech firms operating in the border context.

3. Public policy engagement can boost positive stewardship impact on human rights outcomes

In addition to engagement with firms, dialogue participants discussed how investors in BSI companies could articulate a public response to counter the national security threat narrative that often facilitates abuse of refugees and migrants. The acceptance of indefinite incarceration of immigrants, including asylum seekers, as official government policy in countries including Canada and Australia, ongoing European policy on deportation of migrants to Libya or Turkey illustrate the challenge of turning back these policies. US policy of continuing to hold migrants from Central America and the Caribbean in limbo in Mexico, attempts to create offshore migrant detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, and UK efforts to copy Australia’s approach with offshore detention facilities in the South Atlantic  and Rwanda all indicate the strength of border securitization narratives and the lack of solutions that protect migrant rights. With migration poised to increase because of environmental degradation, it is even doubtful that these solutions can work. Without intervention and new policy solutions, the risks to investors will only increase.

4. Migration policy matters for investors and successful climate action

According to McKinsey, migrants contributed ca. $6.7 trillion, or 9.4 percent, to global GDP in 2015. Yet the refugees among them remain the target of abuse by border authorities, indefinite detention, and are also a testing ground for new technologies, ranging from facial recognition software to mobile lie detectors, border patrol robots and offensive weapons targeting migrants. G7 and other governments’ use of private security firms to push back and detain migrants at borders and in third countries, raises questions about their concern with or commitment to international human rights that are part of the Paris Agreement. As climate change and war accelerate human movement, investors have a unique window of opportunity to raise their voices and make sure companies and governments take migrant rights seriously, living up to existing obligations and international law commitments, in the context of sovereign decisions.

The time for action is now. By staying on the sidelines, investors may very well become complicit in turning the management of humankind into a fully industrialized security-led process.

Note: the dialogue was held under the Chatham House Rule and all quotes in the summary document were approved for attribution.

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