In a bid to prevent irregular migrants from crossing its borders, Europe is increasingly turning to digital technologies such as drones, sound cannons and AI-powered lie detectors. Politicians and human rights activists are alarmed amid the growing use of technology to fortify the EU's external borders.
The weapon mounted on an armored truck of the Greek border police at the Turkish border doesn't shoot bullets or missiles over the frontier into Turkey. Instead, it fires bursts of extremely loud noise. Despite having the dimensions of a small TV set, the long-range acoustic device, or "sound cannon,'' can be as deafening as a jet engine.
The sound cannon is one of the new physical and experimental digital barriers that have been installed and tested during the coronavirus pandemic at the over 200-kilometer long Greek border with Turkey. The aim of this new and vast array of deterrents is to stop people before they can enter the European Union.
A new steel wall, akin to the construction on the US-Mexican border instigated by former President Donald Trump, blocks often-used crossing points along the Evros River that separates the two countries.
"Nearby observation towers are being fitted with long-range cameras, night vision, and multiple sensors. The data will be sent to control centers to flag suspicious movement using artificial intelligence analysis," the Associated Press (AP) reports. According to a recent Guardian article, thermal-vision cameras and devices that can detect heartbeats are also being deployed.
"We will have a clear 'pre-border' picture of what's happening," Police Major Dimonsthenis Kamargios, head of the region's border guard authority, told AP.
Detect and deter
The EU has poured €3 billion into security tech research following the so-called refugee crisis in 2015-16, when more than one million people -- many escaping wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan -- fled to Greece and on to other EU countries. Part of the efforts are river and land patrols using searchlights and long-range acoustic devices. The goal is detecting migrants early and deterring them from crossing.
According to Kamargios, key elements of the automated surveillance network being built on the Greek-Turkish border will be ready by the end of the year. "Our task is to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally. We need modern equipment and tools to do that.''
Researchers at universities around Europe, working with private firms, have developed futuristic surveillance and verification technology. According to the AP, they have also tested more than a dozen projects at Greek borders.
Some of the more futuristic endeavors currently being tested are lie detectors and virtual border-guard interview bots powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Other efforts include integrating satellite data with footage from drones on land, air, sea and underwater.
"Palm scanners record the unique vein pattern in a person's hand to use as a biometric identifier, and the makers of live camera reconstruction technology promise to erase foliage virtually, exposing people hiding near border areas. Testing has also been conducted in Hungary, Latvia and elsewhere along the eastern EU perimeter," AP reports.
Militarization of Europe's borders
At some of the EU's external borders, the bloc has outsourced border control responsibilities. For instance, the EU funded and trained Libya's coast guard to intercept migrants in the central Mediterranean before they could reach European shores; and under the so-called EU-Turkey deal from 2016, it also paid around €6 billion to Turkey so the non-EU country would seal its borders, host Syrian refugees, and take back irregular migrants from the Greek islands.
But in keeping with European policymakers' more aggressive migration strategy over the past five years, migrants trying to enter Europe have witnessed an increasing fortification of Europe's external borders. According to The Guardian, the EU earmarked almost €35 billion in "funding for border and migration management for the 2021-27 budget, while sidelining the creation of safe passages and fair asylum processes."
At the same time, the EU transformed Frontex, the bloc's border and coast guard agency, from a coordination mechanism to a full-fledged multinational security force. Yet regional migration deals have left the EU exposed to political pressure from neighbors. Earlier this month, Spain deployed its army to Ceuta after several thousand migrants irregularly entered the enclave in a single day. Last year, a similar crisis unfolded on the Greek-Turkish border that lasted three weeks.
According to AP, "Greece is pressing the EU to let Frontex patrol outside its territorial waters to stop migrants reaching Lesbos and other Greek islands." The route across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos and other Greek Aegean Islands is the busiest one in Europe for irregular crossing in recent years.
Concerns over human rights
Armed with new tech tools, European law enforcement authorities are extending their reach beyond their borders. While not all the surveillance programs being tested will be part of the new detection system, human rights groups say the emerging technology will make it even harder for migrants fleeing wars and extreme hardship to find safety -- and easier for border guards to push them back.
Over the past four years, hundreds of so-called pushbacks have been documented along Europe’s external borders in several reports. Aside from national border guards, Frontex personnel are also accused of being involved in pushback incidents in the Aegean Sea.
Patrick Breyer, a European lawmaker with Germany's left-wing Pirates party, has taken an EU research authority to court. His demand: Making details of the AI-powered lie detection program public.
"What we are seeing at the borders, and in treating foreign nationals generally, is that it's often a testing field for technologies that are later used on Europeans as well. And that's why everybody should care, in their own self-interest,'' Breyer told the AP.
He called on authorities to "allow broad oversight of border surveillance methods to review ethical concerns and prevent the sale of the technology through private partners to authoritarian regimes outside the EU," AP reported.
Ella Jakubowska, of the digital rights group EDRi, accused EU officials of adopting "techno-solutionism'' to sideline moral considerations in dealing with the complex issue of migration. "It is deeply troubling that, time and again, EU funds are poured into expensive technologies which are used in ways that criminalize, experiment with and dehumanize people on the move,'' she told AP.
Also read: Vast majority of pushbacks in southeast Europe involve torture, rights watchdogs say
Surge in migrant arrivals
After an ongoing increase of migrant arrivals in recent years, the numbers abated during the pandemic, at least in some parts of Europe. In Greece, for example, the number of arrivals dropped from some 71,000 in 2019, according to data by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to close to 15,000 last year, a 79% decrease.
Italy and Spain, in contrast, have experienced the opposite trend: While their pre-pandemic numbers were significantly lower than Greece's, Italy saw more than three times as many irregular migrants arrivals last year than in 2019. In Spain, the uptick was around a quarter, mainly due to the some 23,000 migrants who arrived on the Canary Islands off Africa's western coast.
Yet in the coming years, migratory pressure on Europe will presumably increase further. According to United Nations data, the world's migrant population rose by more than 80% to reach 272 million between 2000 and 2020. This trend was "outpacing international population growth," AP reported.
'We're not afraid'
At the Greek border village of Poros near Turkey, many houses in the area are abandoned and dilapidated.
Panagiotis Kyrgiannis, a Poros resident, said the wall and other preventive measures have all but halted migrants' crossings.
"We are used to seeing them cross over and come through the village in groups of 80 or a 100,'' he told AP. "We were not afraid. ... They don't want to settle here. All of this that's happening around us is not about us.''
This article is based on a feature by the Associated Press (AP)