NGO uses satellite imagery to prevent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean

German charity Space-Eye is developing artificial intelligence to hold states to account

Men who were rescued off the Libyan coast on Friday, watch the city of Messina from the deck of the Open Arms rescue vessel as the ship enters the port located on the island of Sicily, Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)
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A German NGO has begun developing artificial intelligence to detect migrant boats making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean using satellite imagery.

New charity Space-Eye, which was launched by the founder of the private rescue organisation Sea-Eye, has teamed up with dozens of researchers in southern Germany to analyse historical footage of migrant boat passages and to probe whether authorities have been doing everything they can to help those in distress at sea.

“We are talking about a gigantic grey area where terrible crimes are committed by migrant smugglers or other ships that actively deny to help those in distress, but there is no pressure to prosecute any of that,” Space-Eye founder Michael Buschheuer told Politico.

Space-Eye’s eventual goal is to develop AI so it can examine images in real time to identify boats that need help in the Mediterranean.

The charity, which was launched last year by Mr Buschheuer, is hoping to monitor and analyse an area of up to 4,500 square kilometres off the Libyan coast to indicators for refugee movements.

Announcing the initiative last year, Mr Buschheuer said he hoped that one day the technology would be so advanced that Space-Eye could recognise and identify people.

The Bavarian entrepreneur founded Sea-Eye with his wife in Germany in 2015. The charity searches for migrant boats in distress with the rescue vessel Alan Kurdi, named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to reach Europe.

Mr Buschheuer got the idea for Space-Eye after becoming concerned that NGO-run rescue ships were being forced to limit their operations in the Mediterranean for fear of legal action against them. He worried that there would not be enough non state actors operating in the area, which could hold governments to account.

Last year, more than 1,200 migrants died trying to cross the dangerous passage, according to figures reported by the United Nations International Organisation for Migration.