25th Sep 2023


The human cost of AI in EU-Africa's migration surveillance

  • Europe's techno-borders: the artificial intelligence architecture for border surveillance has been continuously expanding over the last decades in an attempt to detect, deter and repel refugees and migrants (Photo: The U.S. Army)
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The ethical cost of Artificial Intelligence tools has triggered heated debates in the last few months. From chatbots to image generation software, advocates and detractors have been debating the technological pros and societal cons of the new technology.

In two recently-published reports, EuroMed Rights, Statewatch and independent researcher Antonella Napolitano have investigated the human and financial costs of AI in migration.

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The reports show how the deployment of AI to manage migration flows actively contribute to the instability of the Middle East and North African region as well as discriminatory border procedures and the deaths of thousands each year.

The EU, surveillance-funder

The Middle East and North Africa region has been at the centre of European policies of externalisation of migration control for decades. Increasingly, surveillance technology plays a crucial role in the external dimension of migration.

However, surveillance technologies deployed in countries under the guise of fighting human trafficking, smuggling or anti-terrorism are often deflected from their initial use. Fragile democracies and authoritarian governments use them to curtail civic space and freedom of expression for activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

The recent negotiations between the EU and Tunisia have proven once again how the European and member states' strategy remains unchanged: millions of euros in exchange of drones, patrol boats and helicopters to track migrants and curb migratory flows.

Security and military tools handed over to a country that is sliding back to authoritarianism, and where repression of civic space and democratic freedoms is escalating.

After all, Tunisia — as with other Maghreb countries — have received this kind of support through the European Trust Fund for Africa for years, for instance through the ongoing BMP-Maghreb project.

Are techno-borders and human rights compatible?

Decades of "muscling-up" the EU's borders keep showing the same thing: military, security, defence tools or technology do not stop migration, they only make it more dangerous and lethal. According to the International Organisation for Migration, the first quarter of 2023 has been the deadliest since 2017 in the Central Mediterranean.

Nonetheless, the security and surveillance apparatus is only expected to increase: new studies and researches commissioned by the EU, like the one conducted by consultancy firm Deloitte, focus on ways to refine, optimise and expand the use of these technologies, also through AI, despite evidence of human rights violations, inaccuracy or inability to perform as presented.

Surveillance: a billion-euro business

Border management has become a full-fledged business sponsored by the EU taxpayer.

The external dimension of migration and border control attracts huge sums of money. The European Union has allocated billions of euros. First through the €5bn EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa launched in 2015 and focused on curbing migration and strengthening border management.

Then, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) — whose total budget nearly amounts to €80bn will set about 10 percent of spending on the governance of migration.

EuroMed Rights' report Artificial Intelligence: the new frontier of the EU's border externalisation strategy shows that countries in the MENA region were recipients for multi-million euros projects that included building the capacity of third countries' authorities in social media and open-source intelligence, fingerprint collection, mobile phone data extraction and other investigation techniques.

A few examples are the project dismantling the criminal networks operating in North Africa and involved in migrant smuggling and human trafficking that allocated €15m to law enforcement agencies in Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Or the trainings organised by CEPOL for the Algerian police force on social media intelligence.

At the same time, millions of euros have been flowing — and will increasingly do so — to member states, for the e-fortification of Europe's external borders, through the deployment of large-scale IT databases and the use of new technologies like facial recognition in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

EuroMed Rights' report Europe's techno-borders illustrates how this architecture for border surveillance has been continuously expanding over the last decades in an attempt to detect, deter and repel refugees and migrants. For those who manage to enter, they are biometrically registered and screened against large-scale databases, raising serious concerns on privacy violations, data protection breaches and questions of proportionality.

Surveilling surveillance

In a context that is resistant to public scrutiny and accountability, and where the private military and security sector has a vested interest in expanding the surveillance architecture, it is crucial for civil society to be vocal about the violations that take place every day at Europe's borders, also through the use of technology.

New cameras, drones, biometric data processing and artificial intelligence will be deployed ever more frequently at borders, and it is therefore of utmost importance to keep monitoring and denouncing their use, in the struggle for a humane migration policy that puts the right of people on the move at the centre.

Author bio

Eva Baluganti is migration officer at EuroMed Rights.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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