Deconstructing EU's Virtual walls and its Harsh Reality
The situation of refugees in Europe has garnered global attention. Increasingly strict pushback measures have seen many successful efforts to make Europe's borders more militarised with the help of advanced technology. Stricter border externalisation policies have led to a higher death toll for forcibly displaced persons. But what is the human impact of these policies and are they effective in deterring migration?
The European Union is experimenting with futuristic surveillance technology along Greece’s border with Turkey to stop migrants and refugees from entering their countries. On 31st May, 2021, it was reported that Greek Police fired bursts of ear-shattering noise from a metal protected truck over the frontier to Turkey. The “sound cannon” is placed at the top of the vehicle and can match the volume of a jet engine. It has been reported that nearby observation towers are being fitted with long-range cameras, night vision and multiple sensors. The new technologies deployed on the borders of the EU consists of drones, AI- powered lie detectors, satellites and sensors. Imposition of physical and digital barriers is a dangerous consequence of anti-immigration rhetoric propagated by far right parties in Europe.
A police officer works inside the operation centre at the village of Nea Vyssa near the Greek-Turkish border, Greece. Credits: AlJazeera [Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo]
The European Union's aggressive migrant policy has resulted in spending on border security and control skyrocketing, particularly since the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’. EU spending on the main maritime and virtual walls was over €2 billion from 2000 to 2019. Annual costs keep increasing, due to the introduction of new technological systems. The role of EU border protection agency, Frontex, has also been transformed from a coordination mechanism to a fully fledged multinational security force.
It is important to note that technology has always been part of border and immigration enforcement. Physical border walls and passports have only worked with the help of technology. According to a report by the United Nations, digital or "smart" borders refers to borders whose infrastructure and processes rely on machine learning, algorithmic decision-making systems, predictive analytics and related digital technologies. These technologies are integrated into identification documents, facial recognition systems, ground sensors, aerial video surveillance drones, biometric databases, asylum decision-making processes and many other facets of border and immigration enforcement.
Several humanitarian organisations have criticised the so-called “smart” borders as they undermine fundamental human dignity. It also denies asylum seekers the agency to give meaningful informed consent about the use of their data. Large amounts of personal data are requested from them including their fingerprints and they are often not provided with necessary information to decide whether they consent to participate in this data collection or not. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether asylum seekers have access to their own collected biometric data.
Police officer Dimitris Bistinas operates a long-range acoustic device, attached to a police vehicle, during a patrol alongside the Greek-Turkish border near the town of Feres, Greece. Credits: AlJazeera [Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo]
Some have also pointed out that the technology behind digital borders is not neutral and used for promoting xenophobic and racially discriminatory ideologies. A 2017 case of racial profiling in Northern Macedonia revealed that officials stored biometric data of people prevented from crossing the border. Many raised concerns that the list was filled with Roma who face ethnic discrimination. Critics have also warned against "surveillance humanitarianism" which leads to exclusion of asylum seekers and refugees from essential necessities such as primary education, food and shelter due to increased dependence on technology. This militarisation means that safe routes to seek asylum have become increasingly sparse, asylum seekers are increasingly dependent on people smugglers and forced to take more dangerous routes.
The increased militarisation of borders generates millions in income for the elite. Airbus, Leonardo and Thales are three of the largest European military and security companies. Importantly, they are also members of Europe’s two largest security lobbying groups, the European Organisation for Security (EOS) and the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD). These companies are not only responsible for increased border militarisation but are also prominent exporters of arms to conflicts in countries which refugees seek to escape. In this way, these multi-billion euro companies reap financial gain both from fueling conflict abroad and halting the flow of people striving to escape the same conflicts.
A police car patrols alongside a steel wall at the Greek-Turkish border on May 21, 2021. An automated hi-tech surveillance network being built on the Greek-Turkish border aims to detect migrants early and deter crossing. Credits: The Christian Science Monitor [Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo]
The current migration strategy of the EU perceives migrants and refugees as a security threat. In reality, these people are either fleeing violent conflict, persecution or extreme poverty. Security companies are exploiting this humanitarian crisis by lobbying for stricter immigration control through advanced technology. This private and public partnership has led to severe violation of human rights of an already vulnerable population. Moreover, research shows that stricter border control does not stop people from migrating; constructing physical and virtual walls are neither humane nor an effective response to human flow. Taxpayers' money has been misdirected to a few multi-million euro security companies and the only people who are benefiting from this are those who are reaping the financial reward.
About the Author
Navya is a student of Political Science and History from New Delhi, India. She has volunteered with organizations which work with refugees since 2019. She continues to work as a student volunteer at various peacebuilding projects in India. She loves interacting with children to raise awareness about the negative consequences of hate speech in India and across the world through her project, Diversity Dialogue.