EU builds digital fortress to keep illegal migrants at bay

Measures such as the ‘sound cannon’ aim to deter movement across Turkish border

A migrant rests with a child in his arms next to the Tunca river in Edirne, Turkey, March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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The EU is testing futuristic surveillance technology along Greece’s border with Turkey to deter migrants.

Human rights groups say the move will make it harder for refugees fleeing wars and extreme hardship to find safety.

Greek border police have fired bursts of deafening noise from an armoured vehicle over the frontier into Turkey. The long-range acoustic device, or "sound cannon", is the size of a small TV set but can match the volume of a jet engine.

A new steel wall, similar to the recent construction on the US-Mexico border, blocks commonly used crossing points along the Evros River, which separates the two countries.

Nearby observation towers are being fitted with long-range cameras, night vision monitors and sensors. The data will be sent to control centres to flag suspicious movement using artificial intelligence analysis.

The measures are part of a €3 billion ($3.66bn) EU initiative for security tech research.

It was launched after the 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 countries in the bloc.

Movement across the 200-kilometre border is lower than normal because of the pandemic.

The automated surveillance network is aimed at detecting migrants early and deterring them from crossing, with river and land patrols using searchlights and long-range acoustic devices.

A Greek police official, Dimonsthenis Kamargios, said some elements would be launched by the end of the year.

“We will have a clear ‘pre-border’ picture of what’s happening,” he said.

“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 companies, have developed surveillance and verification technology, and tested more than a dozen projects along Greek borders.

AI-powered lie detectors and virtual border-guard interview bots have been piloted, as have work to integrate 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.

Migrant wait for humanitarian aid on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing with other migrants and refugees the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on November 25, 2015.  More than 800.000 migrants, mostly fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have crossed the Mediterranean this year to reach Europe. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

Testing has also been conducted in Hungary, Latvia and elsewhere along the EU’s eastern perimeter.

European policymakers have advocated a more aggressive migration strategy in the past five years. It has brought about deals with Mediterranean countries outside the bloc to hold migrants back, transforming the EU border protection agency, Frontex, from a co-ordination mechanism to a fully fledged multinational security force.

But regional migration deals have left the EU exposed to political pressure from neighbours.

Earlier this month, several thousand migrants crossed from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in a single day, prompting Spain to deploy the army. A similar crisis unfolded on the Greek-Turkish border last year and lasted three weeks.

Greece is pressing the EU to let Frontex patrol outside its territorial waters to stop migrants reaching Lesbos and other Greek islands, the most common route in Europe for illegal crossing in recent years.

Armed with new tech tools, European law enforcement authorities are leaning farther outside the bloc’s borders.

Not all the surveillance measures being tested will be included in the new detection system, but human rights groups say the emerging technology will make it even harder for refugees fleeing wars and extreme hardship to find safety.

Patrick Breyer, a German member of the European parliament, has taken an EU research authority to court, demanding that details of the AI-powered, lie-detection scheme be made 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,” he said.

He urged 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.

Ella Jakubowska, of the digital rights group EDRi, said EU officials were 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 criminalise, experiment with and dehumanise people on the move,” she said.

Migration flows have slowed in many parts of Europe during the pandemic, interrupting an increase recorded over years. In Greece, for example, the number of arrivals dropped from about 75,000 in 2019 to 15,700 in 2020.

But the pressure is sure to return. Between 2000 and 2020, the world’s migrant population rose by more than 80 per cent, to 272 million, according to UN data. This fast outpaces international population growth.

Meanwhile, at the Greek border village of Poros, the breakfast discussion at a cafe was about the recent crisis on the Spanish-Moroccan border.

Many of the houses in the area are abandoned and in a gradual state of collapse, and life is adjusting to that reality.

Cows use the steel wall to shelter from the wind and rest nearby.

Panagiotis Kyrgiannis, a Poros resident, says the wall and other preventive measures have brought migrant crossings to a dead stop.

“We are used to seeing them cross over and come through the village in groups of 80 or a 100,” he said.

“We were not afraid … they don’t want to settle here. All of this that’s happening around us is not about us.”