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Europe’s vain attempt to monitor migration routes at sea

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Dangerous migration routes across the Mediterranean Sea are getting busier again. The EU wants to use drone technology to monitor them better. Will it work? There are some doubts, taking into account the ethical and technical challenges involved.

2020 gave ample cause for concern about the re-emergence of one of the most lethal at-sea migration crossings between Africa and Europe, via the Alboran Sea which makes up the westernmost portion of the Mediterranean between the Iberian Peninsula and the north of Africa.

The number of at-sea arrivals reaching Spain via the Western Mediterranean route (see image), picked up dramatically compared to 2019. Most of the migrants embarked from Algeria and Morocco.

Maps and stats

Image credit: UNHCR

Both nations severely struggled last year under coronavirus lockdowns and dwindling economic prospects. It triggered another exodus (as it did some years earlier). Safer land crossing routes became less popular in 2020. Instead, more than nine out of ten migrants opted for the more perilous boat journey.

UNHCR chart

Image credit: UNHCR

The result was a mounting number of deaths and missing people - an 18 per cent increase compared to 2019. More than 800 people lost their lives or went missing attempting to cross to Spain.

But perhaps more worrying is the trend towards less successful rescue efforts. Eight hundred and eleven people were reported missing or killed in 2018. Back then, 65,000 migrants attempted to reach Spain. In 2020, with fewer migrants - only 42,000 - nearly as many ran into trouble (809 died or went missing). This suggests monitoring, rescue and protection efforts grow less, not more effective.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency seems keen to improve on its pledge to monitor migrants at sea. A new drone programme is set out to help.

Since 2015 when the global refugee crisis triggered a massive increase in numbers of crossings, the agency has seen the budget devoted to patrolling and policing its borders triple, from €142m in 2015 to €460m last year. That is good news but there are other issues.

The drone type that will help Frontex to deliver is a ‘Heron 1’, reports suggest. The type is usually operated in a military context and in war zones. Frontex will now remodel it to fit into the civil airspace category. It's a challenge. Will the public accept it? It could make some people very unconformable, especially those who suffer from PTSD and have had bad experiences with conflict drones.

E&T reached out to Airbus, the European aerospace and defence company that was one of the organisations awarded a multimillion Euro contract to make the drones work across the Mediterranean Sea. It claims there is no cause for concern as the drone will have big Frontex signs and colours printed on it.  

“If you have a drone flying oversea in correlation with the national coast guard in Greece, Italy or Malta, [the drone surveillance] will allow, with its radar and infrared [sensors], [to cover] a much wider area of surveillance than what coastguard ships [can] do”, an Airbus spokesperson said.

But there are caveats to this vision. One problem is the operational radius from the base station from which the drone operates. The drone technology is able to cover more than 500km (and up to 1,000km). That might not be sufficient to address the issues in the Western Mediterranean sea route (see image).

Drone area

Image credit: Ben Heubl, Google Earth

So far, only minor details have emerged about where the drone base will be stationed. Information stated on the tender refers to 'Greece, Italy or Malta'. None of these locations will be suitable to sufficiently address the burgeoning movement between Algeria and Spain.

The other issue has to do with responsibility. Activists have criticised the drone program, saying it could allow the EU to avoid legal responsibility for attempting to save the lives of people in distress at sea. It certainly looks neat on Frontex's CV. But will it deliver? We don't know. There is good reason to be suspicious. Last October, Bellingcat published evidence on how Frontex was complicit in so-called maritime pushback operations in order to drive away refugees and migrants attempting to enter the European Union via Greek waters.

On the specifics of how the Frontext drones will be used, we are currently in the dark. On the phone, the Airbus spokesperson could not give me any specific details on how Frontex will want to operate the drone in practice. 

No doubt, the drone program seems to offer some added benefits and neat features. But the devil is in the detail and some people who I talked to say that Frontex may already have the ability to monitor marine space and migrant boats, from satellite and other means.

The German non-profit Space-Eye is developing AI programs to reach computers to detect migrant boats in satellite images.

Computer scientist Elisabeth Wittmann, who is involved in the project, tells me that she is surprised how much she and her team could see from satellite images alone. She is convinced that if she can do it, Frontex may do far more advanced stuff with satellite and radar data: “I don’t know much about what Frontex is doing but I know what we are working on and if we can do it [tracking migrant boats at sea with public and commercial satellite data], than Frontex can definitely do it”.

The use of drones to monitor borders also appeals to the UK Home Office. A programme is in development to help Britain protect its borders, with a command centre possibly based in Dover. There are similar issues here as mentioned above.

The essential question is: how do these drones make sure they increase safety for migrants at sea? It's vital to get answers. As long as this isn't confirmed, questions will continue to be asked about whether it's prudent to back border patrol and monitoring drone programs in civil marine and air space. 

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