By Petra Molnar

In our ongoing work on technology and migration, we examine the impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the rights of people on the move and the increasingly worrying use of surveillance technology and AI at the border and beyond.

Refugees, immigrants, and people on the move have long been linked with bringing disease and illness. People crossing borders whether by force or by choice are often talked about in apocalyptic terms like ‘flood’ or ‘wave,’ underscored by growing xenophobia and racism. Not only are these links blatantly incorrect, they also legitimise far-reaching state incursions and increasingly hardline policies of surveillance and techno-solutionism to manage migration.

These practices become all the more apparent in the current global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a matter of days, we saw Big Tech present a variety of ‘solutions’ for fighting the coronavirus sweeping the globe. Coupled with extraordinary state powers, the incursion of the private sector leaves open the possibility of grave human rights abuses and far reaching effects on civil liberties, particularly for communities on the margins. While emergency powers can be legitimate if grounded in science and the need to protect health and safety, history shows that states commit abuses in times of exception. New technologies can often facilitate these abuses, particularly against marginalised communities.

As more and more states move increasingly towards a model of bio-surveillance to contain the spread of the pandemic, we are seeing an increase of tracking, automated drones, and other types of technologies developed by the private sector purporting to help manage migration and stop the spread of the virus. However, if previous use of technology is any indication, refugees and people on the move will be disproportionately targeted. Once tools like virus-killing robots, cellphone tracking, and‘artificially intelligent thermal cameras’ are turned on, they will be used against people crossing borders and bring far reaching ramifications. Our research has repeatedly shown that migration technological experiments are often discriminatory, breach privacy, and even endanger lives.

Pandemic responses are political. Making people on the move more trackable and detectable justifies the use of more technology and data collection in the name of public health and national security. Even before the current pandemic, we have already been documenting a worldwide roll-out of migration “techno-solutionism.” These technological experiments occur at many points in a person’s migration journey. Well before you even cross a border, Big Data analytics are used to predict your movement and biometric data is collected about refugees. At the border, AI lie detectors and facial recognition have started to scan people’s faces for signs of deception. Beyond the border, algorithms have made their way into complex decision-making in immigration and refugee determinations, normally undertaken by human officers. A host of people’s fundamental human rights are impacted, including freedom from discrimination, privacy issues, and even life and liberty.

In some cases, increased technology at the border has sadly already meant increased deaths. In late 2019, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, commonly known as Frontex, announced a new border strategy called ECOSUR which relies on increased staff and new technology like drones. This strategy is similar to the Horizon 2020 ROBORDER project which ‘aims to create a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles.’ In the U.S., similar ‘smart-border’ technologies have been called a more ‘humane’ alternative to the Trump Administration’s calls for a physical wall. However, these technologies can have drastic results. For example, border control policies that use new surveillance technologies along the US–Mexico border have actually doubled migrant deaths and pushed migration routes towards more dangerous terrain through the Arizona desert, creating what anthropologist Jason De Leon calls a ‘land of open graves’. Given that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported that due to recent shipwrecks, over 20,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014, we can only imagine how many more bodies will wash upon the shores of Europe as the situation worsens up in Greece and Turkey.

The COVID pandemic will greatly also affect refugees living in informal settlements or securitised camps. Cases have already been reported on the Greek Island of Lesbos, which has been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees since the start of the Syrian War in 2011. Italy has also just announced that it has closed its ports to refugee ships because of the coronavirus until July 31. However, the answer to stopping the spread of the virus is not increased surveillance through new technology, building new detention camps, and preventing access into the camps for NGO workers and medical personnel. Instead, we need a redistribution of vital resources, free access to healthcare for all regardless of immigration status, and more empathy and kindness towards people crossing borders.

While technology can offer the promise of novel solutions for an unprecedented global crisis, we must ensure that COVID technology does not unfairly target refugees, racialised communities, the Indigenous communities, and other marginalised groups, and make discriminatory inferences that can lead to detention, family separation, and other irreparable harms. Technological tools can quickly become tools of oppression and surveillance, denying people agency and dignity and contributing to a global climate that is increasingly more hostile to people on the move. Most importantly, technological solutions do not address the root causes of displacement, forced migration, and economic inequality, all of which exacerbate the spread of global pandemics like COVID-19. Unless all of us are healthy, including marginalised communities, no one is.

In times of exception like a global pandemic, the hubris of Big Tech thinking it has all the answers is not the solution to a complex global health crisis.

Read more:
Press Release: EDRi calls for fundamental rights-based responses to COVID-19 (01.04.2020)
https://edri.org/edri-calls-for-fundamental-rights-based-responses-to-covid-19/

Accountable Migration Tech: Transparency, governance and oversight (11.03.2020)
https://edri.org/accountable-migration-tech-transparency-governance-and-oversight

Emerging Voices: Immigration, Iris-Scanning and iBorderCTRL–The Human Rights Impacts of Technological Experiments in Migration (19.08.2019)
http://opiniojuris.org/2019/08/19/emerging-voices-immigration-iris-scanning-and-iborderctrl-the-human-rights-impacts-of-technological-experiments-in-migration/

The Privatization of Migration Control (24.02.2020)
https://www.cigionline.org/articles/privatization-migration-control

(Contribution by Petra Molnar, Mozilla Fellow, EDRi)