WCO – Free Zones and the Necessity for Enhanced Customs Involvement

Coega SEZ, South Africa

The expansion of Free Zones has been mainly driven by political decisions closely affiliated with national economic development strategies. In some countries Customs is the primary governmental authority that regulates and governs Free Zones, while in others Free Zones are governed by other authorities, with less involvement from Customs. Depending on the institutional set-up, the scope and degree of Customs control in Free Zones and the economic operations carried out there varies considerably from one Free Zone to another. 

Existing literature reveals that Free Zones attract not only legitimate business but also illicit trade or other illicit activities that take advantage of the regulatory exemptions of Free Zones. 

Numerous papers have outlined the risks associated with Free Zones, along with economic benefits. Most of them deal with the legality of Free Zones policies, particularly in relation to export subsidies as governed by the WTO Agreement. Several other papers have dealt with illicit activities that have been perpetrated by exploiting characteristics of Free Zones. Such illicit activities include money laundering, tax-evasion and trade in counterfeit goods or other illicit goods. 

The WCO research paper deals with Customs-related aspects of Free Zones, considering both the associated benefits and risks. The risks primarily concern illicit trade that exploits key aspects of Free Zones. 

Literature that focuses on risks associated with Free Zones, particularly illicit trade or other illicit activities, have several things in common. They tend to highlight the fact that supervision over cargoes/companies in Free Zones is somewhat relaxed in comparison with other parts of the national territory. The following factors have been pointed out or quoted, although details are rarely provided due to the technical nature of the topic. 

  • Relaxed controls inside Free Zones 
  • Insufficient Customs’ involvement in the operation of Free Zones 
  • Ease in setting up companies inside Free Zones 
  • Insufficient integration of Information Technology(IT) systems by governmental agencies inside Free Zones 

The WCO research paper’s key observations fall in line with those outlined above. It describes the low-level involvement of Customs in monitoring cargo movement and companies’ activities inside Free Zones. This includes Customs’ low-level involvement at the establishment phase of Free Zones, at the approving companies permitted to operate in Free Zones pahse, and during the day-to-day monitoring of cargoes in Free Zones. Limited Customs’ authority inside Free Zones is also mentioned. This paper touches upon relaxed Customs procedures/controls related to Free Zones and observes that they stem from Customs’ limited involvement and limited authority inside Free Zones. These limitations, combined with insufficient integration and utilization of IT, result in a lack of the requisite data concerning cargoes inside Free Zones, and render Customs’ risk-management-based controls – conducted for the purpose of preserving security and compliance without hindering legitimate cargo flows – virtually useless. 

The research paper considers the concept of ‘extraterritoriality’ concerning Free Zones, stemming from a misinterpretation of the definition of Free Zones contained in the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC), to be behind the aforementioned limited involvement by and limited authority of Customs. The definition within Annex D, Chapter 2 of the RKC does not state that Free Zones are geographically outside the Customs territory. The definition means that the Free Zone itself falls within the Customs territory. ‘Goods’ located in Free Zones are considered as being outside the Customs territory for duty/tax purposes only. 

WCO Research Paper No. 47 – ‘Extraterritoriality’ of Free Zones: The Necessity for Enhanced Customs Involvement

Source: WCO, Kenji Omi, September, 2019

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