In this week’s episode, host Maryam Tanwir and panellist Yasmin Homer discuss the role of technology in the securitization of European borders with MEP Patrick Breyer and researcher Ainhoa Ruiz (see bios below). It was 71 years ago that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention codified the rights of refugees to seek sanctuary and the obligation of states to protect them. It was in 2015 that Angela Merkel famously declared “wir schaffen das” – “we can do it.” Yet the International Organization for Migration has described 2021 as the deadliest year for migration routes to and within Europe since the last deadliest year, which was a very recent 2018. At least 1315 people died making the central Mediterranean crossing, while at least 41 lives were lost at the land border between Turkey and Greece. The creation of Fortress Europe is inserting technology into the heart of the human story of migration, as migrants uproot themselves escaping war, famine, political violence and economic instability to search for a better and safer life, undertaking an increasingly treacherous and unforgiving journey. What is the role of technology in the ongoing securitization of the EU’s borders? What are the implications for human rights? 

Fortress Europe starts ironically with a free movement agreement, which entails enforcing a harder exterior border. In some manner we are telling everyone that us inside this agreement are civilization and outside are barbarians.

Ainhoa Ruiz

The conversation starts off with a summary of the current situation at European borders. Ainhoa notes that ironically, the concept of Fortress Europe can be traced back to the Schengen Agreement, which enforced a division between those inside the zone who were granted free movement, and those outside, whose movement toward Europe was impeded. She also highlights how the notion of European border creates a division between “civilized” Europeans and “barbaric” outsiders, and points to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees a right to leave one’s country.

“We are not actually sure about what are they doing with this data. So, these technological walls affect migrants but is also affecting us inside the free movement area.

Ainhoa Ruiz

So, what do Europe’s walls look like? Today, there are three physical walls on EU border. As Ainhoa notes, however, walls are not only physical, but also “mental” and “administrative.” Technology constitutes another wall, not only for people trying to come in to the EU but also for the people living inside the wall, whose movement is being watched. The last “wall” is that constituted by Frontex, which acts as a European border police force, forcing migrants to take ever more dangerous routes. 

The European Union is pouring enormous amounts of resources and money into building this fortress

Patrick Breyer

Patrick highlights that we have just observed the Holocaust Remembrance Day, which ought to be an opportunity for us to collectively reflect on the fact we could all be refugees fleeing terror. For him, the starting point was the Syrian Civil War, when refugees were first perceived as a threat. This played into the hands of authoritarian parties, who were able to impose the theme in public debates, leading in turn democratic parties to follow suit. Both of our guests highlight a climate of fear: fear of globalization, fear of crime – and more. These concerns are compounded in issues of migration. 

They are starting to collect information about our plane travels, but they also want to expand it to train and ferry travels. They are using algorithms that evaluate the risk that we pose based on patterns, that allegedly indicate a risk if we have certain criteria in common with perpetrators in the past.

Ainhoa Ruiz

This fortress is buttressed by the collection of personal data, leading us toward a security society that has more traits in common with China than what we like to admit. Our “mere existence” – as our guest puts it – is surveilled under the pretence of preserving Europe’s security. The military complex has adapted to this situation and is providing these tools, which add up to a significant industry. 

Ainhoa reinforces how important the military industry’s role is in pushing for the adoption of these technologies, and notes that EU Member States are guilty of letting the industry participate closely in policy decisions. This contracting-out of security alienates accountability and makes the system opaque and removed from public scrutiny. 

Patrick recently won a transparency lawsuit against a security project called iBorderCtrl that was created to evaluate a border technology that forced people entering the EU to answer video questions. The twist is that the technology was supposed to leverage AI to detect lies. He explains how in his view this technology presents a grave problem from a human rights perspective, as the machine can never be reliable enough and would lead to unfair rejections at the border. This technology also runs the risk of being discriminatory: in the past previous face detection technology has proven to be less accurate for people of colour. If deployed, this technology would then be in the market and could be sold to authoritarian governments around the world. This technology has “enormous potential for abuse,” concludes our guest.

All this research happening in the dark, and they have recurrently been been funding, the development of crowd control and mass surveillance technologies. That this is really a danger to our free and open society.”

Patrick Breyer

Can technology and human rights be reconciled in any way? is a sort of more of an equitable balance that can be made? Or is it or is a whole new model completely needed? Ainhoa argues it’s too soon to know, but that clues point to an ever-increasing securitization of technology, with new killer drones invented that can take your life in complete disregard for any human right. Technology, and the companies that develop it, always seem to outpace democratic rulemaking with the complicity of policymakers who let lobbies make the rules. 

We need to stop and try to think about the consequences of all this technology. Technology and companies run faster than society… It is creating more insecurity than the insecurity it claims to fight.

Ainhoa Ruiz

Patrick highlights how the new generation is mobilized, as we see with the climate protests, and could change public discourse. Finally, he explains that living in a securitized environment does not guarantee little crime, far from it. Examples of the US and the UK show that securitization and security do not go hand in hand. Human rights are perfectly compatible with targeted investigation and with security, but they are currently under threat. It should be our role, he concludes, to defend an open and free society.

Our Panelist:

Yasmin is a second-year undergraduate studying History. She is studying Early Modern Eurasia with an interest in the importance of liminality and “borders” in forming socio-political and cultural identity. Originally from Buckinghamshire, she has engaged with human rights issues since secondary school. After graduating, she aspires to work with international governance concerning peace, gender and security.

Our guests:

Ainhoa Ruiz has been a researcher at the Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau since 2014, with an interest in border militarisation, arms trading and private military companies. She received her doctorate for a thesis on the militarisation and walling of the border space, and has worked in both Colombia and Palestine. Her report “A Walled World, towards a Global Apartheid” warns of the expansion of the border space into both European states and third countries, linking the 1000km of physical walls to virtual walls of surveillance and discourses of violence.

Patrick Breyer is a Member of the European Parliament from the German Piratenpartei. A self-described “digital freedom fighter,” he was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, is an active member of the NGO Working Group on Data Retention, and a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Patrick recently sought an order from the European Court of Justice to publicly release documents concerning iBorderCtrl, an artificial intelligence technology for scanning and detecting the emotions of migrants crossing EU borders.

Further reading

Fortress Europe: the millions spent on military-grade tech to deter refugees (The Guardian 2021)

Automated technologies and the future of Fortress Europe (Amnesty International 2019)

Fortress Europe: dispatches from a gated Continent (Matthew Carr 2016)

A Walled World: towards global apartheid (Ainhoa Ruiz, Mark Akkerman, Pere Brunet 2020)