‘Smart’ borders and the surveillance of refugees

Governments everywhere are reinforcing their borders through surveillance technology. These invasive and dehumanising systems work only to deny refugees sanctuary, argues Emre Eren Korkmaz

December 1, 2021 · 6 min read
A remote surveillance camera along the US-Mexico border fence in southern Texas, 2013 (Credit: Donna Burton)

The digital transformation of our world has impacted all areas of life, and migration is no exception. Social media platforms and map or translation apps on smartphones provide migrants and refugees tools to help them in making the decision to migrate, as well as building a new life in their host societies. Phone chargers are an important need in many refugee camps, and once they cross a border, refugees seek sim cards and chargers in addition to food and water, so that they can communicate with their loved ones, access their networks and receive important information.

However, these technological solutions can also create additional problems for groups at risk. These apps were not developed by taking the unique characteristics of migrants and refugees into account or in compliance with humanitarian principles. Because the business models of these companies depend on serving personalized ads on the basis of the data collected, they can function as platforms for political and commercial manipulation targeting migrants and refugees. They can also make it easy for states and global corporations to monitor, direct, manipulate, and prevent migration movements.

Controlling Movement

In recent years, the European Union, and governments in the US, Canada, and the UK have been investing in ‘innovative and technological solutions’ to manage migratory movements. These ‘solutions’ are, in fact, surveillance technologies that take migrants and refugees as ‘test subjects,’ enhancing the militarization and securitization of border management. Big data analysis (for instance, mobile phone and social media data), various sensors and drones, and artificial intelligence algorithms are among some of these ‘innovative’ and technological ‘solutions.’

I challenge the assumption that this tech is beneficial because many tools of surveillance capitalism that affect all sections of society are first tested on migrants. Smart borders are a particularly visible outcome of big data analysis used by states and so far their impact has been profoundly negative. Yet smart borders are the manifestation of the expectation that analysis of refugee data would help governments make ‘necessary’ (!) preparations for their arrival.

For instance, smart border technologies deployed by the US on its border with Mexico and by the EU in the Mediterranean are based on the analysis of data from unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), satellites, cameras and sensors placed on the border, as well as from mobile phones and social media. The goal is to stop migrants before they arrive at the border and apply for asylum. One particularly despicable example of this is to lead migrants to the most dangerous parts of the desert in Mexico, and in the case of the European Union, to encourage passages at the most dangerous times and through the most dangerous waters in the Mediterranean so that they die before arriving at the border in the vain hope that this will deter future migrants from making the same journey.

The death of tens of refugees along the Belarus-Poland border and in the English Channel during November are the latest examples of denying people’s right to seek asylum by strengthening physical and virtual borders. As Priti Patel mentioned on the 25th November, the UK had proposed ‘a very, very significant technology offer’ to France, as well as more UK police to stop migratory movements just a day after 27 refugees drowned in the English channel.

Another example is from Canada. As former CNBC journalist Jeff Daniels noted in 2018, Canada has been implementing automated decision-making systems to process asylum applications since 2014, one of which is a lie detector called AVATAR (Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessment in Real-Time). In 2017, the Canadian Border Services Agency tested the AVATAR’s ability to automate screening, interviewing, and credibility assessment of individuals crossing borders. Systems like AVATAR could create serious human rights violations that might put asylum seekers under intense psychological pressure to express their claims against a kiosk type machine.

Standing up for refugees

Technology does not have a will of its own. Its development and use is directed by the interests of capital. However, advances in the field of frontier technologies which are framed as operating free of the biases and imperfections of human decision making serve to obscure this basic reality. As such, the impartiality of these systems is often treated as an article of faith. Such an analysis which accounts for these interests in relation to migration governance is therefore necessary to overcome these obfuscations.

The death of tens of refugees along the Belarus-Poland border and in the English Channel during November are the latest examples of denying people’s right to seek asylum by strengthening physical and virtual borders

Migrants and refugees rely heavily on social media and mobile phone applications to cross borders and express solidarity with each other, but any agency that might afford them is far exceeded by the power of governments and corporations to deploy surveillance technologies to control, manage, manipulate and ultimately halt their progress. We must therefore actively resist this transformation of the border.

Settled citizens are themselves made vulnerable by the development of new technologies, from job losses to automation or the diminution of the public sphere, yet they can still find ways to seek redress and apply pressure to governments and corporations. These means of redress can be used as a tool to show solidarity with refugees. Recently for example, The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in conjunction with feminist digital rights advocacy group Foxglove forced the Home Office to suspend its visa streaming algorithm on the grounds that it would score peoples’ nationalities according to perceived risk, further entrenching bias in an already racist system. People have right to seek asylum, we cannot allow invasive, punitive technology to let governments evade their responsibilities.

We need more debates on this topic, not only to demonstrate solidarity with refugees, but also to oppose oppressive surveillance techniques on border and migration management. The militarization of borders also risks peace and create favourable conditions to spark new conflicts and fundamentally, surveillance tools first developed on migrants affect us all.

Emre Eren Korkmaz is a lecturer in Lecturer in Migration Studies at The University of Oxford.

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