In post-pandemic Europe, migrants will face a digital fortress

PEPLO, Greece (AP) – As the world begins to travel again, Europe is sending migrants a strong message: Stay away!

The Greek border police are firing blasts of deafening noise from an armored truck over the border into Turkey. Mounted in the vehicle, the long-range acoustic device, or “sound cannon,” is the size of a small television, but can match the volume of a jet engine.

It is part of a wide range of new physical and experimental digital barriers being installed and tested during the quiet months of the coronavirus pandemic at the 200-kilometer (125-mile) Greek border with Turkey to prevent people from illegally entering the European Union.

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

The nearby observation towers are equipped with long-range cameras, night vision, and multiple sensors. The data will be sent to control centers to pinpoint suspicious movements using artificial intelligence analysis.

“We will have a clear ‘pre-border’ picture of what is happening,” Police Major Dimonsthenis Kamargios, head of the region’s border guard authority, told the Associated Press.

The EU has invested € 3 billion ($ 3.7 billion) in security technology research in the aftermath of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people, many of them escaping wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they fled to Greece and other EU countries. .

The automated surveillance network being built on the Greek-Turkish border aims to detect migrants early and deter them from crossing, with river and land patrols using long-range reflectors and acoustic devices.

Key elements of the network will be launched by the end of the year, Kamargios said. “Our task is to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally. We need modern equipment and tools to do that. “

Researchers from universities across Europe, in collaboration with private companies, have developed futuristic surveillance and verification technology and tested more than a dozen projects on the Greek borders.

Lie detectors with artificial intelligence technology and virtual robots have been put to the test for border guard interviews, as well as efforts to integrate satellite data with images from drones on the ground, in the air, at sea and underwater. Palm scanners record the unique vein pattern on a person’s hand to use as a biometric identifier, and the makers of live camera reconstruction technology promise to virtually erase foliage, exposing people hiding near them. border areas.

Tests have also been carried out in Hungary, Latvia and elsewhere on the eastern perimeter of the EU.

The most aggressive migration strategy has been promoted by European policy makers in the last five years, financing agreements with Mediterranean countries outside the bloc to curb migrants and transforming the EU border protection agency, Frontex, from a mechanism from coordination to a full-fledged multinational security. force.

But regional migration agreements have left the EU exposed to political pressure from neighbors.

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

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

Armed with new technological tools, European law enforcement authorities are leaning further outside the borders.

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

Patrick Breyer, a European lawmaker from Germany, has taken an EU investigative authority to court, demanding that the details of the AI-powered lie detection program be made public.

“What we are seeing at the borders, and when dealing with foreign nationals in general, is that it is often a testing ground for technologies that are then used in Europeans as well. And that’s why everyone should be concerned, in their own interest, ”Breyer of the Germany Pirates Party told the AP.

He urged authorities to allow extensive 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, from the digital rights group EDRi, argued that EU officials were embracing “technosolutionism” to set aside moral considerations when dealing with the complex issue of migration.

“It is deeply concerning that, time and again, EU funds are being poured into expensive technologies that are used in ways that criminalize, experiment and dehumanize people on the move,” he said.

Migration flows have slowed in many parts of Europe during the pandemic, interrupting an increase recorded for years. In Greece, for example, the number of arrivals fell from almost 75,000 in 2019 to 15,700 in 2020, a decrease of 78%.

But the pressure will surely return. Between 2000 and 2020, the world’s migrant population increased by more than 80% to reach 272 million, according to United Nations data, rapidly outpacing international population growth.

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

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

The cows use the steel wall as a wind barrier and rest nearby.

Panagiotis Kyrgiannis, a Poros resident, says the wall and other preventive measures have stopped migrant crossings.

“We are used to seeing them crossing and passing through town in groups of 80 or 100,” he said. “We were not afraid. … They don’t want to settle here. All this that is happening around us is not about us. “

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Associated Press journalist Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.

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