Thursday, May 26

“They can see us in the dark”: immigrants face a high-tech fortress EU | Migration

Khaled has been playing “the game” for a year. A former law student, he left Afghanistan in 2018, driven by precarious economic circumstances and fears for his safety as the Taliban increasingly targeted Kabul.

But when he arrived in Europe, he realized that the chances of winning the game were against him. Reaching the borders of Europe was easy compared to crossing into the EU, he says, and there were more physical obstacles preventing him from reaching Germany, where his uncle and girlfriend live.

On a cold December afternoon in the Serbian village of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, where he had squatted for a month on an abandoned farm, he and six other Afghan asylum seekers were having dinner together: a raw onion and a stick of bread. They passed from side to side, their faces lit by the glow of a fire.

The night before, they had all tried “the game” again, the name migrants give to attempts to cross. But almost immediately the Hungarian border police stopped them and pushed them back to Serbia. They believe that the speed of the response can be explained by the use of thermal cameras and surveillance drones, which they had seen during previous attempts to cross.

“They can see us in the dark, you just walk around and find you,” Khaled said, adding that drones had been seen flying over his crouching position. “Sometimes they send them to this area to see who is here.”

Migrants in the Serbian town of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, squatting on an abandoned farm, January 2021.
Busy migrants on an abandoned farm in the Serbian town of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, January 2021. Photography: Kevin McElvaney

Drones, thermal vision cameras and devices that can detect the heartbeat are among the new technological tools that European police increasingly use to prevent migrants from crossing borders or to push them back when they do.

The often violent expulsion of migrants without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is illegal under EU law, which requires authorities to process asylum applications regardless of whether or not the migrants possess identification documents or have entered. to the country legally.

“The routes are increasingly difficult to navigate. Hallways [in the Balkans are] Really intensely surveyed by these technologies, ”says Simon Campbell, field coordinator for the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a migrant rights group in the region.

Migrant in the Serbian village of Horgoš
A refugee in the Serbian town of Horgoš last month. Photography: Kevin McElvaney

The militarization of Europe’s borders has increased steadily since 2015, when the influx of migrants peaked. A populist turn in politics and fear around the issue have prompted the use of new technologies. The EU has invested in strengthening borders, allocating 34.9 billion euros (30 billion pounds sterling) to finance border management and migration for the 2021-27 budget, while putting aside the creation of safe passages and fair asylum processes.

Osman, a Syrian refugee now living in Serbia, crossed several borders in the southern Balkans in 2014. “At that time, I didn’t see any kind of technology,” he says, “but now there are drones, thermal cameras and all kinds of other things “.

When Hungarian police caught him trying to cross the Serbian border before the pandemic hit last year, they bragged about the equipment they used, including what Osman remembers as “a huge drone with a big camera.” He says they told him: “We are looking at you everywhere.”

The surveillance technology upgrade, as Khaled and Osman attested, has coincided with increased funding for Frontex, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency. Between 2005 and 2016, Frontex’s budget grew from 6.3 million euros to 238.7 million euros and now stands at 420.6 million euros. Technology at the EU’s Balkan borders has been largely funded by EU money, and Frontex has provided operational support.

Between 2014 and 2017, with EU funding, Croatia purchased 13 thermal imaging devices for € 117,338 that can detect people more than a mile away and vehicles two miles away.

In 2019, the Croatian Ministry of the Interior acquired four eRIS-III long-range drones for 2.3 million euros. They identify people up to six miles away in daylight and just under two miles in the dark, fly at 80 mph and ascend to an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,400 feet), while transmitting data in real time. Croatia has infrared cameras that can detect people up to six miles away and equipment that captures the heartbeat.

Border patrol on the border between Hungary and Serbia
A Hungarian military and police patrol near the border crossing between Röszke, Hungary and Horgoš, Serbia, last month. Photography: Zoltán Gergely Kelemen / EPA

Romania now has heartbeat detection devices, along with 117 thermal vision cameras. Last spring, it added 24 thermovision-capable vehicles to its border security force at a cost of more than 13 million euros.

Hungary’s investment in migration management technology is shielded from public scrutiny by a 2017 legal amendment, but its lack of transparency and the practice of pushing migrants back have been criticized by other EU nations and the court of European justice, which led Frontex to suspend operations in Hungary in January.

It means that migrants can no longer use the cover of darkness for their attempts to cross. Around the fire in Horgoš, Khaled and his fellow asylum seekers decide to try to cross in the early morning, when they believe thermal cameras are less effective.

Migrants in Horgoš, near the Hungarian border
Busy migrants squatting on an abandoned farm near the Hungarian border last month. Photography: Kevin McElvaney

A 2021 report from BVMN states that improved border control technologies have led to an increase in violence as the Balkan police arm new teams against people on the move. The technology used to push back migrants has “contributed to the ease with which racist and repressive procedures are carried out,” the report says.

BVMN highlighted the 2019 case of an 18-year-old Algerian who reported that the police beat him and strangled him with his own shirt while attempting a night crossing from Bosnia to Croatia. “You can’t cross the border at night because when the police catch you at night, they hit you a lot. They break you, ”says the teenager, who reported seeing surveillance drones.

Ali, 19, an Iranian asylum seeker living in an immigrant camp in Belgrade, says Croatian and Romanian police have been violent and ignored his asylum claims during their attempts to cross. “When they catch us, they don’t respect us, they insult us, they beat us,” says Ali. “We said ‘we want asylum,’ but they didn’t listen to us.”

BVMN website archives hundreds of reports of violence. In february of last year, eight Romanian border agents beat two Iraqi families with batons, administering electric shocks to two men, one of whom was holding his 11-month-old son. They stole their money and destroyed their phones, before taking them back to Serbia, blowing icy air at the police van until they reached their destination.

“There have been very, very severe beatings lately,” says Campbell. “Since the spring of 2018, there has been excessive use of firearms, batons, tasers and knives.”

In response to email inquiries, Frontex denies any link between its increased funding for new technologies and the violent setbacks in the Balkans. He attributes the rise in reports to other factors, such as the rise in illegal migration and the proliferation of mobile phones, making it easier to record incidents.

Hungarian police guard the closed border crossing
Hungarian police guard a border crossing with Serbia near the town of Röszke last year. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic / AP

Petra Molnar, Associate Director of Refugee Law Lab, believes that overemphasis on technologies can alienate and dehumanize migrants.

“There is an attractive solution for really complex problems,” he says. “It’s much easier to sell a lot of drones or a lot of automated technology, rather than dealing with controllers that force people to migrate … or make the process more humane.”

Despite increasingly sophisticated technologies that have prevented them from crossing Europe’s borders, Khaled and his squatter friends managed to cross into Hungary in late December. He lives in a camp in Germany and has started the asylum application process.

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