Controversy over AI technology usage for border controls and migration regulation

In recent months, strong arguments have erupted over the ethical cost of artificial intelligence capabilities. 

From chatbots to image-generating software, supporters and adversaries have debated new technologies’ technological benefits and societal drawbacks.

EuroMed Rights, Statewatch, and independent researcher Antonella Napolitano studied the human and financial implications of AI in migration in two recent publications.

The research results demonstrate how the use of AI to control migratory patterns actively contributes to the Middle East and North African region’s instability, as well as discriminatory border processes and the deaths of thousands each year.

Authoritarian governments misuse surveillance technology

For decades, the Middle East and North Africa region has been at the heart of European policy aimed at externalising migration management.

Surveillance technology is increasingly vital in the exterior component of migration. 

Surveillance technologies implemented in countries under the premise of combating human trafficking, smuggling, or anti-terrorism are frequently diverted from their intended purpose. Authoritarian governments use them to restrict activists, journalists, and human rights defenders’ civic space and freedom of expression.

Recent negotiations between the EU and Tunisia have demonstrated how the European and member states’ strategy remains unchanged: millions of euros in return for drones, patrol boats, and helicopters to follow migrants and reduce migratory flows.

Security and military equipment are being given over to a government that is reverting to authoritarianism, and repression of civic space and democratic liberties is increasing.

After all, Tunisia, like other Maghreb countries, has long received this type of assistance from the European Trust Fund for Africa, for example, through the ongoing BMP-Maghreb project.

AI Surveillance disregards human rights

Decades of “muscling up” the EU’s borders have revealed the same thing: military, security, defence, or technology measures do not stop migration; instead, they make it more dangerous.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, the first quarter of 2023 in the Central Mediterranean was the worst since 2017.

Nonetheless, the security and surveillance apparatus is expected to grow.

New EU-commissioned studies and research, such as the one conducted by consultancy firm Deloitte, focus on ways to refine, optimise, and expand the use of these technologies, including AI, despite evidence of human rights violations, inaccuracy or inability to perform as presented.

Border security as a multi-million business

Border control has evolved into a full-fledged industry financed by EU taxpayers. The exterior dimension of migration and border control requires investments. The European Union has allocated millions of euros. 

First, through the €5 billion EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, established in 2015 to reduce migration and boost border management.

Then, the Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument, with a total budget of almost €80 billion, will allocate roughly 10% of its budget to migration governance.

According to EuroMed Rights’ report Artificial Intelligence: the New Frontier of the EU’s Border Externalisation Strategy, countries in the MENA region received multi-million euro projects such as building third-country authorities’ capacity in social media and open-source intelligence, fingerprint collection, mobile phone data extraction, and other investigation techniques.

A few examples include a scheme that granted €15 million to law enforcement authorities in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to dismantle criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling and human trafficking in North Africa. Or the social media intelligence training organised by CEPOL for the Algerian police force.

Simultaneously, millions of euros have flowed to member states for the e-fortification of Europe’s external borders, including the deployment of large-scale IT databases and the use of new technologies such as facial recognition in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

The research paper Europe’s Techno-Borders by EuroMed Rights shows how this border monitoring architecture has been continuously increasing over the previous decades in an attempt to detect, prevent, and repel refugees and migrants. 

Those that make it in are biometrically recorded and vetted against large-scale databases, creating significant concerns about privacy abuses, data protection breaches, and proportionality issues.

Struggle for a humane migration policy

In a context resistant to public scrutiny and accountability, and where the private military and security sector has a vested interest in expanding the surveillance architecture, civil society must be vocal about the violations that occur every day at Europe’s borders, including through the use of technology.

New cameras, drones, biometric data processing, and artificial intelligence will be deployed more frequently at borders, and it is critical to continue monitoring and opposing their use in the fight for a humane migration policy that prioritises the rights of people on the move.

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