For many countries, especially those with access to COVID-19 vaccines, the reality of post-pandemic life is within reach. Among the most anticipated aspects of a world unrestricted by coronavirus is the possibility of travel. Already, countries are easing restrictions on international travel as the world looks to regain a sense of normalcy.
Yet, borders are not opening for everyone in a post-pandemic world. In fact, many have been reinforced to keep out a certain group of travellers: undocumented migrants and refugees. Europe is using novel technological methods to enhance its border security, much to the dismay of human rights organizations and pro-immigration politicians.
Along the border of Greece and Turkey, a digital fortress is being erected to keep unwanted immigrants out. The European Union is funding and installing a range of experimental new technology to ramp up the effort against illegal immigration, effectively creating digital barriers to buttress the physical ones. A newly constructed steel wall blocks the most popular crossing points along the Evros River, which separates the two countries.
During the pandemic, migratory flows into the E.U. have significantly waned. Al Jazeera reports that, in Greece, the number of arrivals dropped from nearly 75,000 in 2019 to 15,700 in 2020 – a 78 percent decrease. The pandemic has interrupted the increase recorded over previous years, and border police are taking advantage of the quietness to test the new technology.
“Our main goal is to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally. To accomplish this we use new and modern equipment,” Police Major Dimosthenis Kamargios, head of the region’s border guard authority, told Associated Press.
In a video tweeted by Deutsche Welle, the Greek border police are seen testing a “sound cannon” to be used against refugees. According to Associated Press, the long-range acoustic device fires “bursts of deafening noise over the frontier into Turkey.” Mounted on an armoured truck, it is only the size of a small TV set. Even so, it rivals the volume of a jet engine.
The sound cannons are only the beginning. Observation towers along the steel wall are being fitted with “long-range cameras, night vision, and multiple sensors.” The collected data will be sent to control centres where artificial intelligence analysis will flag suspicious movement.
This automated surveillance network is aimed at “detecting migrants early and deterring them from crossing,” with river and land patrols using searchlights and sound cannons to apprehend those that evade the cameras. Kamargios added that border patrol will have “a clear ‘pre-border’ picture of what’s happening,” once the infrastructure is fully launched by the end of the year.
According to Al Jazeera, the E.U. has invested €3 billion into security tech research in the last five years. During the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, over one million people, many escaping wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, fled to Europe. Many have entered through Greece before moving on to other E.U countries.
European policymakers have pressed for a more aggressive migration strategy since the refugee crisis, even negotiating with non-E.U. Mediterranean countries to hold migrants back. These efforts have turned Frontex, the E.U. border protection agency, into a “full-fledged multinational security force,” according to Associated Press.
Not all the dozens of projects being tested at the Greek border will be utilized, but the vast array of their experimental technology is enough to ensure that refugees will find it difficult to slip through the cracks. Some of the other projects include AI-powered lie detectors; satellite data from drones and palm scanners as biometric identifiers. Live camera reconstruction technology promise to virtually erase foliage, thus exposing people who are hiding near border areas.
The implementation of this new technology has been criticized for a slew of reasons. Firstly, the ethical concerns of using publically-funded advanced technology for border surveillance have come into question. Associated Press reports that a German lawmaker has taken an E.U. research authority to court, demanding that details of the AI-powered lie detection program be made public. His concern is that, without proper oversight, the methods being tested at the border could lead to the “sale of the technology through private partners to authoritarian regimes outside the E.U.”
Secondly, many human rights groups have condemned the emerging technology that the E.U. is testing because the new detection and deterrence system makes it harder for refugees seeking shelter. On top of fleeing wars and extreme hardship in their home countries, these technological tools pose an extra obstacle for them to overcome, and they must be willing to risk the hazardous impacts on their health. It is simply unacceptable that those fleeing the cacophony of bombs and artillery should be met with jarring sound cannons, designed to cause them such immense harm that their only option would be to surrender and be deported to face the tribulations awaiting them back home.
EDRi, a digital rights group, has argued that the E.U. has adopted “techno-solutionism,” to overlook the complex moral considerations of migration policy. According to Australia-based Digital Rights Watch, this term describes the desire to resort to technological solutions as a quick and seemingly flawless way to solve complex real-world problems. An EDRi representative said that it is “deeply troubling,” that the E.U. continues to pour funds into expensive technology to “criminalize, experiment with, and dehumanize people on the move.”
Even some members of the European Parliament wholeheartedly disagree with this use of funds. Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt tweeted on June 2 a strong condemnation of the tech projects, pointing out the irony of using “a ‘sound cannon’ to drown out the cries of desperate refugees,” despite the E.U. purporting to be the “champion of human rights.”
Finally, many have taken issue with the political agenda behind the new technological border policing methods. London-based group Privacy International has argued that European leaders who have “adopted a hard line on migration,” will gain a political reward by utilizing these new digital barriers. Technology has the image of modernity and advancement, and espousing a “techno-solutionist,” method as a quick fix to a complex issue like migration is thus an appealing political move. It is much easier for lawmakers to convince their colleagues and the public that research and development is the way to go.
Costly projects that not only promote technological advancement in the region as well as tackle the “migration issue,” can be easily packaged as a two-birds-one-stone solution. It is thus far easier for lawmakers to label migrants and refugees as a “security problem to be deterred and challenged,” and propose a technological alternative to get rid of them. Evidently, spending any portion of €3 billion to set up the infrastructure for asylum seekers, expand immigration policies for economic migrants, and improve programs for immigrant assimilation would be far less enticing than a series of flashy tech tools that would digitally strengthen the robust physical barrier of a steel wall.
In Verhofstadt’s words, the E.U. is reinforcing that it is “weak against the strong and strong against the weak.” Their plans to step up their border patrol are especially harsh during a debilitating pandemic where poor countries and their citizens have been dealt a colossal economic blow. To capitalize on the lull in migration flows, to test new methods of deterring refugees and migrants, is cruel – particularly when the E.U. will clearly recover socially and economically at a faster rate than many of the countries from which the migrants hail.