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Fixing Aid | The dangers of border technology for refugees

‘The guards are always watching us. All this technology is not at all making me feel safer.’

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Biometrics, drones, sensor towers, and robot dogs: In this episode of Fixing Aid, host Alae Ismail explores the growing use of border and surveillance technology and looks at the grave consequences and long-lasting impacts for refugees and migrants around the globe.

Tens of thousands of mostly Latin Americans cross the US-Mexico border each month, but many are deciding to take deadlier routes due to the cutting-edge technology being deployed. Meanwhile, people from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa trying to make their way from North Africa into Europe are being routinely intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea thanks to drones and satellites, before being returned to face cycles of abuse in Libya.

Surveillance can have serious mental health effects too. A Congolese woman shares with Fixing Aid that she feels constantly watched and monitored by the guards of the Greek refugee camp she is forced to live in: “Whenever we want to leave the camp, we have to go through the gates and the scans. The guards are always watching us. All this technology is not at all making me feel safer.”

Although US President Joe Biden may not be continuing all the policies of his predecessor, Cinthya Rodriguez of the Latinx community hub Mijente tells Alae that the high-tech measures being deployed along the US-Mexico border can feel like an extension of the physical wall: “When folks are crossing the border, they're met by surveillance that’s very much in your face, and the surveillance that can't be seen.”

Niamh Ni Bhriain of the Transnational Institute says the EU tracks people even before they begin their journey, as well as en route and once they’re inside European territory. “If people come into contact with the borders of the actual jurisdiction line, we often see that they're being requested to provide biometric data. A lot of the databases that are due to store all of this biometrics will target anyone coming into the European Union who is not a resident or citizen. So you have massive surveillance in a discriminatory manner,” she tells Fixing Aid.  

All this surveillance impacts the experience of people in need. Petra Molnar, a lawyer associated with an NGO collective called the Migration and Technology Monitor and associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University, researches how it affects refugees and migrants. As she explains, “a lot of the people that I speak with really talk about feeling dehumanised by this increase of tech. Feeling like they're reduced to data points, or iris scans, or fingerprints.”

Guests: Cinthya Rodriguez, national organiser at Mijente; Niamh Ni Bhriain, War and Pacification coordinator at the Transnational Institute; Petra Molnar, a lawyer associated with an NGO collective called the Migration and Technology Monitor and associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter or Instagram: @NewHumanitarian. 

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We’d be grateful if you could share your thoughts on the Fixing Aid series here

Transcript | The dangers of border technology for refugees

Alae Ismail:

Hey listeners, welcome to the final episode of Fixing Aid! 

I’m Alae Ismail, and in this podcast series by The New Humanitarian, we look at innovations meant to improve the lives of people in humanitarian crises – from those fleeing conflict, to communities facing flooding, prolonged drought, and hunger.

Up until now, Fixing Aid has focused on solutions and innovations intended to help those in need. Today, we’re flipping the script. We’ll be exploring some of the dangers of technology, in particular how it’s being used to stop refugees and migrants crossing borders.  

Audio clip, Donald Trump, May 2016:

Build that wall, build that wall, build that wall…

Ismail: 

It wasn’t that long ago that the president of the United States was pushing the idea of building a physical wall along the entire length of the US-Mexico border to try to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from Latin America and elsewhere from entering the country.

Audio clip, Donald Trump, May 2016:

It’s a vital tool, it’s an important tool. It’s maybe the most important tool that they could think of. We’re gonna build the wall, we have no choice. We have no choice. 

Ismail:

Hassane is from Guinea, where he was arrested several times after joining an opposition party. Eventually, he had no choice but to leave as his life was in danger. He made his way to the United States via Mexico.

Hassane: 

I entered the USA via the southern border, via the San Ysidro checkpoint. When I was passing, I noticed that there were a lot of surveillance cameras all around the metal and barbed-wire wall.

Ismail:

Despite the long-standing presence of a wall along the most populated parts of the border, and strict migration policies that have severely restricted access to asylum in recent years, tens of thousands of people still try to cross every month. But these days, it’s more than just physical barriers in their path. There’s also a virtual wall or, as some call it, a smart wall.

Drones, artificial intelligence, biometric data, robot dogs, sensor towers: these are just some of the cutting-edge technological tools being deployed to stop people from entering. And this isn’t just happening in the United States. Across the Atlantic, the European Union is increasingly using similar tools to keep people out. 

Asylum seekers and migrants are often escaping conflict, violence, the impacts of climate change, or are on the move because of human rights abuses in their home country. But instead of being viewed as people in need – people entitled to international protection – they’re treated as economic burdens and security threats.

Cinthya Rodriguez is a national organiser at the Latinx community hub Mijente. She explains how the new anti-migration technologies deployed along the US-Mexico border are having very real effects on the people they’re targeting:

Cinthya Rodriguez: 

What ends up happening is that people are intentionally being pushed into more dangerous, more deadly parts of the US-Mexico border. And so what, actually, we’ve seen, and has been reported on, is that that goes for border surveillance as well. We’ve seen that there’s this big kind of correlation between, one, the location of this border surveillance that we’ve been discussing, and also, two, the routes that are taken by migrants. What the correlation is, is that in places where there’s border surveillance technology, in places where there’s routes taken by migrants, there’s been remains recovered of people in the southern Arizona desert, for example. And that’s why we call this the deadly digital border wall.

Ismail:

So, basically, more people who try to cross the US border are dying because of the increased use of border surveillance technology. In fact, at least 650 people died last year trying to cross – the highest number recorded since the US government began keeping track in 1998. 

When he was elected president in 2020, Joe Biden spoke of taking a more humane approach to migration and asylum policy than his predecessor Donald Trump. But he also doubled down on investments in high-tech border control technologies. 

Audioclip, NPR, President Biden, Aug 2020:

There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration. I’m gonna make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.

Ismail:

It may seem like Biden and Trump’s approaches are a world apart. But to Cinthya, the distinction is minimal, as the surveillance technology used along the border often feels to migrants and asylum seekers like an extension of the physical border wall:

Rodriguez: 

When folks are crossing the border, they’re met by surveillance that’s very much in your face, and the surveillance that can’t be seen. So we’re talking about an area and an atmosphere where there’s drones in the air, where there’s sensors that pick up your location, where, if you come into contact with border enforcement, you have your biometrics taken, and then you’re put into this surveillance system in several different ways. 

Ismail:

And this trend of using high-tech gadgetry to try to stop people from crossing borders isn’t restricted to the United States. 

Every month, thousands of people try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in small, rickety boats in the hopes of finding safety and opportunity in the European Union.

And just like the US, the EU and its 27 member states are stepping up their investment in technology to prevent people from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa from reaching European shores. 

Despite a warm welcome in European countries for Ukrainian refugees, asylum seekers from other parts of the world do not get the same treatment. In fact, the EU has garnered the nickname “Fortress Europe” because of the strict policies it has adopted to keep people out. And migration remains a hot political topic in many European countries, while the toll in the Mediterranean continues to rise.

Audio clips, news broadcasts, May 2015 to May 2021:

The United Nations Refugee Agency is warning of a big rise in the number of deaths of people trying to reach Europe by sea.

About 100 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean off Libya. Their boat capsized during the perilous journey from North Africa to a better life in Europe.

Ismail:

To deter people from crossing, and to crack down on people smuggling, EU countries initially used boats to patrol their waters and shores. But that often resulted in European navies having to rescue people and bring them ashore. To avoid this, the EU and its member states switched to using drones to surveil their maritime borders. 

Now, when a drone spots a boat trying to cross from Libya to Italy, for example, European authorities alert the Libyan Coast Guard. The Libyan Coast Guard can then intercept the boat before it reaches European waters, where an EU country would legally have to take responsibility for it. Instead of reaching safety, the people on board are returned to Libya, where they are automatically detained and face abuse. 

But this won’t be the first time those on the boats will come into contact with European technology intent on deterring migration: 

Niamh Ni Bhriain: 

What we're seeing is that even before people are on the move, even when they're in their countries of origin, a monitoring of social media messaging, by the European Union, in order to understand migrant flows.

Ismail:

That’s Niamh Ni Bhriain. She coordinates the War and Pacification Programme at the Transnational Institute, an international research group. Niamh looks at the different ways in which war takes place – beyond just traditional conflicts between armies. This includes wars along borders and the war against migrants. She explains that a person leaving their home country – for example, in Mali, Nigeria, or Afghanistan – runs the risk of being tracked long before they arrive on European shores:

Ni Bhriain:  

The European Asylum Support Office created an early warning and forecasts system which was used to monitor social media messaging. So, for example, a war might break out in a certain country, there might be a natural disaster in a certain country. And that may provoke a number of people to be displaced. And what we’ve seen is that the European Union has this technology, where it’s using smart technology to monitor potential migrants through their social media posts. Not from a place of eventually providing international assistance and protection, but actually deterring them and containing them where they are. So that’s the first kind of engagement that somebody who is on the move will have with a European border. 

Ismail:

Most people won’t even be aware that they are being monitored like that. This collection and use of data was banned temporarily by the European Data Protection Supervisor.

But it gets worse. Niamh also points out that some measures to strengthen these technological interventions in African transit countries are actually being funded from EU budgets designed for development aid. This means – in addition to the crackdown on migration – less money goes to helping people who are in need of food, protection, or a safe place to stay. 

And while the tracking and surveillance of migrants and asylum seekers often starts in their home country, it doesn’t stop there. Here’s Niamh again: 

Ni Bhriain: 

Then as they’re on the move, and they’re getting closer to the borders, we see the use of drones, in the Mediterranean Sea, we see the use of a European border surveillance system, which is monitoring through satellites. We see the use of sensors, which detects thermal imagery, also, heartbeat sensors. And all sorts of monitoring of movements, around the borders, not specifically on the border itself, but picking up on movement within the border vicinity. Then, as people come into contact with the borders of the actual jurisdiction line, we often see that they’re being requested to provide biometric data. And that data is being stored in databases. And then once they’re inside the European Union, even if they are moving within the European Union, they may again be required to use biometric data.

Ismail: 

Biometric data includes a lot of things, for example your fingerprint or a computer scan of the retina of your eye. Some EU member states are in the process of adding facial recognition. All of this data is stored. And at the moment, the EU is trying to make all this information interoperable, meaning police forces and law enforcement agencies across the 27 EU member states will all have access to the collected surveillance data. 

It’s unclear how well protected all this mass surveillance data is from potential cyber-attacks. And little can be done sometimes to prevent sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands – as we saw when the Taliban gained access to databases on Afghan citizens after their return to power last August. 

Investment in border technologies is rapidly increasing, but it's not necessarily a new trend. It picked up pace in the US after 9/11, and in Europe following the so-called migration crisis in 2015/2016, when more than a million refugees – predominantly escaping wars in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries – reached the continent.  

To find out more about the human impacts of surveillance technology, we contacted a woman in her thirties who had to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo. Looking for safety, she reached the EU and is now stuck in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos. 

She doesn’t want to share too many details about herself as she still feels she is constantly being watched and monitored, but she did relay the following via text on WhatsApp:

Woman:

It’s not good in here. We have beds and a roof over our heads, but I don’t like it here. I want to go. There is no water and it feels like being in a prison. And whenever we want to leave the camp, we have to go through the gates and the scans. The guards are always watching us. All this technology is not at all making me feel safer. 

Ismail:

Petra Molnar is a lawyer associated with an NGO collective called the Migration and Technology Monitor. She travels to border zones and refugee camps across the world to try to understand how border technology is impacting the lives of people in need. Currently in Greece, she speaks to many people in refugee camps to find out what it’s like to be surveilled on a daily basis. It was through Petra that we reached the woman from Congo:

Petra Molnar: 

A lot of the people that I sit with and speak with and have gotten to know over the years, they really talk about feeling dehumanised by this increase of tech. Feeling like they're reduced to data points, or iris scans, or fingerprints. And I mean, there's a violent manifestation of this tech as well. We've heard about cases of people, for example, burning off their fingerprints to avoid being put into these databases, for example. Other visceral experiences are such that people sometimes feel like they, again, are being put at the sharpest edges of this tech. In Europe, in particular, we've been seeing this move towards what some people have called refugee warehousing or creating these prison-like camps, especially here in Greece. And these camps are very, very highly securitized, and also full of high-tech interventions, such as drones, algorithmic motion detection software, and even virtual reality augmented glasses that some of the guards wear. And when you actually talk to people, refugees, migrants, people on the move, who are seeking asylum, they again talk about this kind of panopticon, this prison-like complex of being constantly watched and under surveillance. 

Ismail:

So migrants and asylum seekers are being tracked and monitored long before they arrive at a border, and long after. But in some cases it’s unclear when the surveillance really stops, if at all.

For example, US law enforcement officers force migrants apprehended crossing the US-Mexico border to wear an ankle monitor that tracks their location. Carlos travelled for 15 days to make his way from Mexico to the United States. The border towers were a constant presence in the distance. He doesn’t know if other surveillance technologies were used to track his movements. He does remember helicopters flying overhead, and he remembers the ankle monitor he was forced to wear, even long after being released in Southern California.

Carlos: 

They took it off me eventually, but it was very hard while I had it on as it restricts us in many ways. It’s like a physical, emotional, and labour detention. People discriminate against us because we're wearing it, so it’s very difficult. The truth is that in terms of work, we can’t really perform like we would like to. And physically too, it hurts us, also psychologically, mentally, and physically. It’s like being surveilled or stalked. It’s like being detained.

Ismail:

Being followed and pressured by drones, biometric data, and other surveillance measures has a profound effect on those seeking safety. Petra describes how asylum seekers and migrants in Europe feel dehumanised after being exposed to tech all the time. Equally, Cinthya, who you heard from earlier, says Latinx community members at the US-Mexico border are also feeling the impact on their mental health.

The tools are developed by tech companies and the arms industry, purchased by powerful states, and then used on marginalised communities and people. The United States requested $1.2 billion for 2022 for border infrastructure, with a lot of that funding expected to be spent on the virtual aspects of the border wall. Similarly, the EU has increased its border control budget by 123% to 43.9 billion euros for the years 2021 to 2027. 

They’re spending so much money on developing these tools. But to what end? There are serious questions over how reliable, effective, and accurate these kinds of technologies are. If a sensor tower at the US-Mexico border can’t spot the difference between a cow and a human, how much should states really rely on such tools?

During her in-depth research into asylum procedures in several Western countries, Petra has come to realise that the institutions using the algorithms often have little understanding of how they work. This is despite the fact that they use the information provided to make decisions with huge implications for people’s lives.

Molnar: 

Because when we talk about borders and immigration decision-making, legally speaking, this is an area that's already very opaque and very discretionary. And many of us have had experiences at borders where we know an immigration officer can make all sorts of decisions. There's a lot of discretion that exists in the system already. So then imagine, if you start augmenting or replacing human decision-makers with machines and technology, in this opaque and discretionary system. Essentially, what happens is, there’s a lot of slippage where responsibility kind of gets pushed further and further afield, especially when mistakes are made. And, right now, very little governance and law actually exists to regulate this kind of violent, harsh technology that we’re seeing. I mean, of course, different countries have privacy laws and data protection laws that do touch on some of the ways that this technology is developed. But overall, there's very, very little law and little oversight and accountability, both when it comes to the development of this technology, but then also its deployment and experience at the border.

Ismail:

And, as Niamh points out, the overall strategy of deterrence itself, is counter-productive.

Ni Bhriain:

By closing those borders, by restricting movement, we’re actually fuelling the conditions that make people need to flee or to move to make a decent living, instead of actually enhancing their possibilities of being able to live where they are, because moving across those borders has been part of their lives and the lives of their ancestors for years and years, because those borders were imposed on them by European colonialism.

Ismail: 

Technology is not neutral. Countless studies show that algorithms, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and similar tools are discriminatory – especially towards brown and Black people. 

Niamh believes the mass surveillance and data collection of non-Europeans and non-US citizens is reframing – and not in a good way – how society looks at people who are seeking asylum or who are in need of help or who just have a different background: 

Ni Bhriain:

We're starting with migrants, and people on the move, refugees, and asylum seekers coming into Europe. A lot of the databases that are due to store all of this biometrics, the idea is that they will target anyone coming into the European Union, who is not a European Union resident or citizen. So you have massive surveillance in a discriminatory manner. If you’re surveilling someone, the assumption there is that that person signifies a threat. So you’re automatically kind of sowing the seeds of suspicion, even though the person has done absolutely nothing. So you’re starting from a place of where the person is seen to be a threat, and they have almost to prove that they're not a threat.

Ismail: 

Despite all of these concerns, Western nations have continued to adapt and expand their use of discriminatory and oppressive technology.

For example, Cinthya from Mijente flagged that some of the drones used along the US-Mexican border were also deployed to surveil Black Lives Matter protests. Petra from the Migration and Technology Monitor noticed that algorithms are now being used for visa applications that have nothing to do with asylum seekers. While Niamh noted how France used tracking technologies during a 2015 state of emergency to target human rights activists, journalists, and others questioning the powers of the state.

And these problems aren’t going away. From the United States and Mexico to the EU’s external borders – the use of surveillance technology is only set to increase.

But this is Fixing Aid, so we don’t want to leave you on a downer. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of innovations for good going on right now. More and more, humanitarian organisations are integrating new technologies into their operations in the hopes of providing better and faster aid to those who need food, shelter, or health services.

In previous episodes, we discussed some of those solutions: from providing better feedback on the aid people receive, to how blockchain might fix the ID problem for a billion people without documentation. And while all these innovations rely on people sharing their personal data, 

the innovators behind them say they’re prioritising the safety of the most vulnerable.

That’s it for The New Humanitarian’s podcast series: Fixing Aid. 

Listen to some of our recent episodes to hear more about innovations from across the humanitarian world and what they can do for people in need, from providing emergency aid through e-commerce, to open-source data platforms predicting the next displacement.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this series: Find us on Instagram or Twitter: @NewHumanitarian, or send us an email: [email protected]

Or, visit thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast where you can find a form to share your thoughts on the Fixing Aid podcast. 

This podcast is a production from The New Humanitarian. 

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf. 

And I’m Alae Ismail. 

Thank you for listening to Fixing Aid!

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