Technologies on the Move: EUROSUR and Nomadic Surveillance


Once composed of stationary technologies, surveillance is now on the move. European states are using increasingly mobile surveillance technologies to drop a security dragnet around their migration problem. 

Surveillance technologies are typically viewed as stationary and fixed to property – a camera is perched on the corner of a building; information about individuals, biometric information, or visa information is stored in databases; thermal vision cameras are located atop fences to detect migrants. However, surveillance technologies are increasingly un-bound and mobile, directed at migratory populations, as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), micro-aerial vehicles (MAVs), and satellites are deployed as tools of ‘nomadic surveillance’. The traditional focus on the stationary obscures the fact that surveillance is portable, mobile, and directed at moving populations. No longer is surveillance confined by immobile technologies, but can roam and wander as it seeks subjects to observe, track, and record. The importance of these developments should not be understated: as the world becomes increasingly mobile, the European Union (EU) is increasingly investing in the production of nomadic surveillance, and the two trends – migration and surveillance – are intimately linked.

Nomadic surveillance is directly linked to international migration for a number of reasons. Around 72,000 to 140,000 migrants are apprehended each year for attempting to enter the Schengen area between official border crossing points. Governments’ anxieties about irregular migration are appeased through nomadic surveillance: cameras in the sky can improve the detection and prevention of entry of irregular migrants, placating publics who are increasingly apprehensive about international migration. The nomadic surveillance of irregular migration does not address the issue of migrants fleeing persecution or conflict, which brings us to the issue of asylum. Approximately 200,000 to 350,000 people apply for asylum in the EU each year, many of whom are forced enter the EU irregularly (exact estimates do not exist) because they are unable to obtain legal entry. Many irregular entrants are from zones of persecution or conflict such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, or Somalia. Nomadic surveillance has arisen as a tool to prevent the access of migrants to territories of asylum, keeping them in the neighboring region, and effectively barring them from receiving international protection in Europe. In other words, nomadic surveillance has become another tool to shift responsibility for asylum-seekers onto third states which lack adequate asylum processes and facilities, placing migrants in precarious legal situations. Given the limited access to Europe, migrants use various dangerous routes in order to access European territory and in consequence migrants are dying in their attempt to reach Europe.

Nomadic surveillance has also been justified as a life-saving tool as mobile technologies are being employed to save lives at sea. For example, the European Border Surveillance Network (EUROSUR) came online in December 2013, two months after two incidences of mass drowning of migrants off the coast of Lampedusa island. The answer according to the Commission, was more nomadic surveillance. The EUROSUR Regulation was adopted in October 2013, and applied to the southern and eastern border member states of the EU from 1 December 2013, and all other EU member states from 1 December 2014. EUROSUR is a good example of nomadic surveillance, designed to track and monitor the movement of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea using mobile technologies. EUROSUR integrates aerospace, optical, and digital technologies into a system of national coordination centers managed by The Agency for the Coordination of the Management of the External Borders of the EU (FRONTEX). Satellites, high-resolution cameras, patrol vehicles, helicopters, planes and various other maritime surveillance technologies will be used to generate ‘situational pictures’ and ‘pre-frontier intelligence pictures’, which will be analyzed and shared among FRONTEX and the national coordination centers.

EUROSUR is partially space-based, using technologies designed by large aerospace and satellite firms, enhancing European capacities for Earth observation as part of the Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE). The capabilities for nomadic surveillance  have emerged from these space-based technologies of observation, image-generation, and tracking of mobile populations. Satellite-based border controls give new meaning to David Lyon’s famous assertion that the “border is everywhere.” Nomadic surveillance takes on new form as the scale of surveillance expands beyond the Mediterranean space to involve technologies which orbit the planet, effectively globalizing what has been until now a Mediterranean-centric endeavor. Do these new European-scale developments generate new pathways for global-scale nomadic surveillance? I find such possibilities distressing because of the implications for asylum-seekers and international migrants, and although there are no plans to expand EUROSUR beyond Europe, capabilities for a system of global maritime surveillance have nevertheless been created, which would correspond to a number of unintended side effects which we can only hypothesize.

As the surveillance of the Mediterranean increases with the launching of EUROSUR’s own mobile technologies, migrants in the EU continue to face difficulties, including economic destitution, inhumane detention, and the constant threat of deportation (the 3Ds: detention, enforced destitution and deportation), which have not been adequately addressed by a parallel system of coordination and pooling of sovereignty among member states – the emphasis has been placed on expanding a system of nomadic surveillance rather than a system of rights and protection.

EUROSUR was designed with an inbuilt tension between the drive to control ‘illegal’ population movements and the need to care for distressed migrant populations who are subject to drowning and death in the Mediterranean Sea. Human rights and humanitarian concerns have arisen as justification for nomadic surveillance, especially with regard to EUROSUR. For example, the second general objective of EUROSUR is to “protect and save lives at the external borders by diminishing considerably the unacceptable death toll of migrants at sea” (the other general goals are “reducing the number of irregular migrants entering the Schengen area undetected” and “preventing serious crime at the external borders of the Schengen area”). The pressure to control crime while ensuring the respect of rights and humanitarian obligations has remained at the core of justification for EUROSUR.

These justifications arise to validate the expenses associated with the research and development of nomadic surveillance technologies. While justifying nomadic surveillance on the grounds of human rights or humanitarianism can be considered a rhetorical victory for proponents of EUROSUR, we have yet to see results – is EUROSUR saving lives and protecting fundamental rights? Or is EUROSUR indirectly responsible for endangering migrant lives and undermining fundamental rights?

These questions will remain of central concern as EUROSUR operations continue, but one interpretation remains certain: EUROSUR will continue to operate as a network of nomadic surveillance, generating and collecting new types of data on mobile populations. And this raises the more difficult question: how can we be so sure that the socio-political issue of migration can be solved by using the technological tools of nomadic surveillance?

Simply strengthening the tools of nomadic surveillance will do very little to directly confront the causes of migration or address the issue of why people move. There is no clear evidence that EUROSUR addresses the root causes of migration nor represents any advance in terms of assisting migrants to access protection or prevent loss of life. Arguments that stress improving nomadic surveillance is essential to addressing rights concerns over migration are not persuasive. Furthermore, given the revelations of Edward Snowden about the United States of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the problems surrounding the legality of nomadic surveillance and the possibility of using nomadic technologies for the unjustified mass surveillance of migrants at sea become more acute. With the infrastructure of nomadic surveillance in place, and the resources available for more to come, it is only a few degrees which make the difference between a liberal democracy and a surveillance state in Europe.

Nomadic surveillance has not yet provided a realistic resolution to the perilous contradictions of migration and only exacerbates existing tensions over the collection of data about populations. Nomadic surveillance, we must recognize, is a tool to manage populations, not a human rights doctrine, or a humanitarian regime, nor a panacea for the causes of migration: nomadic surveillance is a set of tools designed to scrutinize mobile populations and generate new forms of privately controlled data about the movement of people. To argue that nomadic surveillance technologies are designed for the respect of human rights and the saving of lives raises more issues than it resolves.

Theodore Baird is currently a post-doc at VU University Amsterdam carrying out research on the privatization of border security and new technologies of border surveillance. 

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