‘They will see us at the hours of darkness’: migrants grapple with hi-tech fortress EU | Migration

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

But when he reached Europe, he realised the chances at winning the game were stacked against him. Getting to Europe’s borders was easy compared with actually crossing into the EU, he says, and there were more than physical obstacles preventing him from getting to Germany, where his uncle and girlfriend live.

On a cold December evening in the Serbian village of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, where he had spent a month squatting in an abandoned farm building, he and six other Afghan asylum seekers were having dinner together – a raw onion and a loaf of bread they passed around – their faces lit up by the glow of a fire.

The previous night, they had all had another go at “the game” – the name migrants give to crossing attempts. But almost immediately the Hungarian border police stopped them and pushed them back into Serbia. They believe 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, and they find you,” said Khaled, adding that drones had been seen flying over their squat. “Sometimes they send them in this area to watch who is here.”

Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building in the Serbian village of Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border, January 2021. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

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

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

“Routes are getting harder and harder to navigate. Corridors [in the Balkans are] really intensively 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 Serbian village of Horgoš
A refugee in the Serbian village of Horgoš last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

The militarisation of Europe’s borders has been increasing steadily since 2015, when the influx of migrants reached its peak. A populist turn in politics and fear whipped up around the issue have fuelled the use of new technologies. The EU has invested in fortifying borders, earmarking €34.9bn (£30bn) in funding for border and migration management for the 2021-27 budget, while sidelining 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 the time, I didn’t see any type of technology,” he says, “but now there’s drones, thermal cameras and all sorts of other stuff.”

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

Upgrading of surveillance technology, as witnessed by Khaled and Osman, has coincided with increased funding for Frontex – the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency. Between 2005 and 2016, Frontex’s budget grew from €6.3m to €238.7m, and it now stands at €420.6m. Technology at the EU’s Balkan borders have been largely funded with EU money, with Frontex providing operational support.

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

In 2019, the Croatian interior ministry acquired four eRIS-III long-range drones for €2.3m. They identify people up to six miles away in daylight and just under two miles in darkness, they fly at 80mph and climb to an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,400ft), while transmitting real-time data. Croatia has infrared cameras that can detect people at up to six miles away and equipment that picks upheartbeats.

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

Romania now has heartbeat detection devices, alongside 117 thermo-vision cameras. Last spring, it added 24 vehicles with thermo-vision capabilities to its border security force at a cost of more than €13m.

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

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

Migrants in Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border
Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building close to the Hungarian border last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

A 2021 report by BVMN claims that enhanced border control technologies have led to increased violence as police in the Balkans weaponise new equipment against people on the move. Technology used in pushing 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 being beaten and strangled with his own shirt by police while attempting a night crossing from Bosnia to Croatia. “You cannot cross the border during the night because when the police catch you in the night, they beat you a lot. They break you,” says the teenager, who reported seeing surveillance drones.

Ali, 19, an Iranian asylum-seeker who lives in a migrant camp in Belgrade, says that the Croatian and Romanian police have been violent and ignored his appeals for asylum during his crossing attempts. “When they catch us, they don’t respect us, they insult us, they beat us,” says Ali. “We said ‘we want asylum’, but they weren’t listening.”

BVMN’s website archives hundreds of reports of violence. In February last year, eight Romanian border officers beat two Iraqi families with batons, administering electric shocks to two men, one of whom was holding his 11-month-old child. They stole their money and destroyed their phones, before taking them back to Serbia, blasting ice-cold air in the police van until they reached their destination.

“There’s been some very, very severe beatings lately,” says Campbell. “Since the spring of 2018, there has been excessive use of firearms, beatings with batons, Tasers and knives.”

Responding to questions via email, Frontex denies any link between its increased funding of new technologies and the violent pushbacks in the Balkans. It attributes the rise in reports to other factors, such as increased illegal migration and the proliferation of mobile phones making it easier to record incidents.

Hungarian police guard the closed “Horgos 2” border crossing into Hungary
Hungarian police guard a border crossing with Serbia near the village of Röszke last year. Photograph: Darko Vojinović/AP

Petra Molnar, associate director of Refugee Law Lab, believes the over-emphasis on technologies can alienate and dehumanise migrants.

“There’s this alluring solution to really complex problems,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to sell a bunch of drones or a lot of automated technology, instead of dealing with the drivers that force people to migrate … or making the process more humane.”

Despite the increasingly sophisticated technologies that have been preventing them from crossing Europe’s borders, Khaled and his friends from the squat managed to cross into Hungary in late December. He is living in a camp in Germany and has begun the process of applying for asylum.

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