Center for Strategic Communication

The European Union wants new technologies like satellites and drones to monitor illegal immigrants coming from Africa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The European Union wants robotic eyes on incoming immigrants.

As part of a $410 million proposal to improve border security, the European Commission, the executive body of the Union, is considering a deployment of drones above the Mediterranean Sea to keep an eye on illegal immigrants. Alongside increased satellite activity, “sensors mounted on any platforms, including manned and unmanned aerial vehicles” would keep a close watch on unauthorized immigration activity in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the European agency in charge of the EU’s borders.

The proposal is called the EUROSUR project (.pdf), and it’s yet to be debated in the European Parliament and the Council. But Eurocrats are hoping to put it into place by next year. “EUROSUR will help detect and fight criminal networks’ activities and be a crucial tool for saving migrants who put their lives at risk trying to reach EU shores,” said Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s commissioner for home affairs.

But while EUROSUR is said to be a tool to save migrants’ lives, Europe’s discomfort with immigration raises the prospect of immigrant communities coming under a drone panopticon.

The Mediterranean is a major transit point for undocumented immigration. Just this year, 170 immigrants died trying to reach southern European shores. Earlier this month, an inflatable boat sunk miles off the Italian coast, killing 54 Eritreans who were fleeing their country.

There are few details about EUROSUR so far; it’s unclear, for instance, what kinds of satellites or drones will be used. But the plan is to use sats, spy planes and drones to aid authorities in spotting illegal immigrant crossings across the Med; diminish the number of immigrants that die trying to get to Europe; and fight cross-border crime. Having drones fly over the Mediterranean will allow authorities to spot preparatory activities such as the gathering of vehicles or boats on African beaches. There’s no plan to put eyes in the sky over immigrant communities in European cities.

According to opponents, these new measures will only lead to abuse. The ability to spy on African beaches has the potential of criminalizing immigrants before they even leave their border. To critics, EUROSUR is a product of European intolerance, fueled by groups that advocate returning immigrants to their countries of origin before they ever reach European shores, so they don’t become the European Union’s responsibility.

Just like in the U.S. and Russia, the use of robot planes has raised eyebrows. “Drones are very expensive and they don’t help,” Ska Keller, a German member of the European Parliament, told Global Post. “Even if a drone detects a vessel, it can’t do anything for them. You need to have actual people there, and having a drone doesn’t guarantee that.”

The European Commission denies that EUROSUR could be abused. “The situational pictures will as a general rule not involve personal data but rather the exchange of information on incidents and depersonalized objects, such as the detection and tracking of vessels,” states the Commission’s proposal. Due to the proposal’s lack of details, it’s still unclear whether the authorities will store the data they collect or purge it after a certain amount of time.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation, a green think tank, arched an eyebrow (.pdf) over the EUROSUR proposal’s implications for “privacy and data protection,” especially “regarding the foreseen use of drones and other means of aerial surveillance, which are currently not properly addressed in the current legislative proposal.”