Friday, February 26, 2010

Military Technology to Track Down Migrants?

Arms manufacturers have been asked to advise an official European Union (EU) body on how their products can be used to stop asylum-seekers entering the bloc’s territory.

Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, will host an event in Spain this coming June, at which several makers of pilotless drones – or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) – will give presentations.

Although these camera-carrying planes have been designed for war and have been used extensively in attacks on civilians in Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the agency is studying how they can be adapted to border surveillance.

A Frontex source said that none of these drones have been used in its work to date but that is examining what “added value” they can bring to tasks performed by the coast guards of EU member countries. “Special attention” is being paid to drones as they could be capable of monitoring vessels at sea for longer periods of time than equipment now in use by coast guards, according to the source.

Frontex is one of many bodies in Europe that are eager to use drones for security purposes. Earlier this month, the Merseyside police in England sought credit for the first known use of a drone to arrest a suspected criminal. Yet the affair turned into a controversy, when it emerged that the police did not have a licence to use these planes.

Amnesty International said this week it would be concerned if surveillance technology helped Frontex to erode the right to have asylum applications processed in Europe. “Is this being used to fulfil human rights obligations?” Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty’s Brussels office, said. “If it isn’t, that’s a problem.”

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, published a plan to strengthen Frontex Feb. 24. Under it, the Union’s governments would be required to ensure that boats and planes are at the agency’s disposal. Frontex, which has mainly performed a coordinating role between national border management authorities of EU states since its inception in 2005, would gradually be able to buy or lease its own equipment.

Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s recently-appointed home affairs commissioner, said that migrants are “not criminals” but “people coming in search of a better life”. Asked why technology invented for military purposes is being tested for migration control work, she insisted that “there has been absolutely no decision” on using drones for those purposes.

She also stated that “fundamental rights must not be infringed” by Frontex and announced that an independent monitor will be present when the agency is assisting with the expulsion of rejected asylum-seekers. “I don’t exclude at all that there have been errors committed (by Frontex in the past),” she added.

In June last year, Frontex coordinated Operation Nautilus, in which a boat carrying an estimated 75 migrants was intercepted off the Italian coast. Using a German Puma helicopter, the operation was the first of its kind in which Frontex succeeded in forcing migrants from the central Mediterranean Sea back to Libya. Human rights organisations criticised Frontex over this operation, contending that it was unable to give guarantees that the Libyan authorities had allowed people on that vessel the possibility to apply for asylum. Under international law, all individuals are entitled to seek protection from persecution in a country other than their own.

Bjarte Vandvik from the European Council on Refugees and Exile, a network of organisations working with asylum-seekers, said that the research on drones highlighted how Europe’s debate on migration issues is being determined by a “security approach”.

“We can’t accept that people are being sent back to possible torture or death without even being given an opportunity to have their claims dealt with,” he said. “People are being turned away from the borders of Europe today without being screened one way or another to see if they are here looking for protection or here looking for employment and a better life, which is not a crime either.”

Despite impressions conveyed by some politicians that the EU is “swamped” with more asylum-seekers than it can afford to accommodate, asylum applications have fallen sharply in the past two decades. When the Union had just 12 member states in 1992, it registered 550,000 asylum claims. Yet in 2008, the number for the EU – which now comprises 27 countries – was 238,000, while provisional data indicates that the number fell to about 223,000 last year.

Amnesty’s Beger said there has been “a lot of myths and scaremongering” about migration in Europe. There is a “very stark absence”, he argued, of any recognition that asylum-seekers and other migrants are human beings. Because the EU’s policy “disproportionately aims at returning people”, rather than upholding the right to asylum, migrants are undertaking ever more hazardous journeys in their attempts to enter Europe.

Alfredo Abad from the Spanish Commission for Refugees accused the EU of a “big hypocrisy” in setting out to build a common system of asylum in recent years, while simultaneously preventing refugees from arriving here.

First published by Inter Press Service (

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