Tuesday

16th Jul 2019

Tech companies eye opportunities in refugee crisis

  • The EU commission wants to start fingerprinting asylum seeker children as young as six. (Photo: UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei)

Tech company IBM is seeking to deploy self-learning machines to help in the asylum decision-making process.

The company will start testing the feasibility of its so-called cognitive computing technology next week in the hope of reducing asylum backlogs and speeding up applications for people seeking international protection.

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The tests will be carried out internally with a focus on Syria.

The UK and one other EU state government have already expressed interest should the technology prove useful, an IBM employee working on the programme told this website.

Isabella Chiodi, vice president of EU sales at IBM, on Thursday (26 May) said their system is able to understand "natural language", generate and evaluate a hypothesis, and adapts and learns from training and interaction.

Chiodi said the role of the technology is to make border guards and case workers "better investigators". She said it would also "help profile" people asking for international protection.

IBM announced the upcoming test at a conference in Brussels on security, migration and borders.

The firm was a co-sponsor of the event. Speakers included the head of the EU police agency, Europol, and the deputy executive director of the EU border agency, Frontex, as well as senior officials from the European Commission's internal affairs department.

An participant, who could not be named because of the Chatham House rule, said IBM's self-learning system would not replace the case worker but instead help speed up the process.

"It takes too long to train people to respond instantly and the backlog builds up and then the backlog generates its own volume of work," the person said.

The move signals a broader industry push that is seeking to capitalise on a refugee and migration crisis that saw over 1.4 million people ask for asylum last year.

The inflow has strained asylum application systems.

Last November, Sweden was handling up to 10,000 asylum seekers per week. Those figures have now trickled down to around 500 following intensified border control checks.

The EU commission, also last November, projected some 1.5 million people would attempt to enter the EU this year.

But recent border closures along the Western Balkans and a migrant swap deal with Turkey have seen a sharp drop in arrivals in Greece since April.

More are now ending up in Italy after disembarking from Libya.

Another company, French-based Coppernic, is test-piloting a handheld device in France, Germany and Spain that will allow police and border guards to verify people's ID.

The company's business development director said the device could be used at so-called hotspots, zones where arriving migrants are taken for registration and fingerprinting.

"Mobile things, related to fingerprints, the technology is there to assist you in securing your border controls," he said.

Coppernic was also a sponsor of the event, along with three other big firms.

Fingerprints, face scans, and data bases

Officials, speaking at the conference but who cannot be named or have their work places disclosed, said there is a need to gather more biometric data and for a broad integration of existing database systems in general.

"We need a one for all check in all the databases, where we can have an integrated search of the databases," said the official.

The EU commission, for its part, recently proposed to start fingerprinting children as young as six. The data, along with their facial imagery, would be stored in the asylum Eurodac database.

The plan is to expand the Eurodac database to now include anyone who has no legal right to remain in the EU.

Other moves also being made to include a new fingerprint search function in the Schengen Information System (SIS) by sometime next year.

Later this year, the EU commission plans to unveil its new "Smart Borders" package. The proposal will include a so-called Entry-Exit System to track anyone who is not an EU national. The plan is to have it up and running by 2020.

Another official said more initiatives, like Smart Borders, will be rolled out in the near future.

"We will shape the technology landscape," he said.

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