Mostafa, 18, arrived in Greece a year and a half ago fleeing Iran, where his family had been living after their village in Afghanistan was attacked by the Taliban. Not being able to study or find a decent job, he first arrived at Moria camp with his family in the wake of a terrifying five-hour boat journey at night.
After fires broke out in the camp in September of last year, Mostafa said they were moved with the other 13,000 refugees to Kara Tepe camp. Life there is restricted, “boring, and being here for a long time causes us to lose our hope,” he said.
Refugees, such as Mostafa, must also deal with another issue that weighs on their mental health – surveillance.
Refugees inside and outside the camps in Greece report being heavily monitored – cameras, random checks, heavy police vigilance, drones and the collection and sharing of their data among governments. Greek authorities have recently announced a plan to introduce even more invasive and automated surveillance systems within the camps.
Mostafa says there are cameras everywhere and that “everything is under control of [the] police.” He is allowed to leave the camp only once a week, for three hours, to buy groceries.
Mina, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee, said police checked their phones and collected their data once she and other refugees arrived in Lesbos in October, 2019. However, she said, she wasn’t informed at any point about the purpose and destination of the data. Several European countries, including Greece, have expanded laws to allow for the extraction of refugee phone data in recent years – without people’s permission.
According to Petra Molnar, associate director at York University’s Refugee Law Lab, who visited refugee camps in Lesbos last year, the use of intense surveillance “strengthens that link between migrants as people who bring diseases and all of that, and bodies who must be managed, surveilled and kept under control.
“There’s this intersection that [the camps] are trying to make between using the pandemic as an excuse to roll out further surveillance.”
Marcus Michaelsen, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, who is researching digital surveillance and repression, agreed. “One possible effect of the pandemic is that governments across the world are ramping up their technological capacities to monitor and track COVID infections or enforce lockdown rules,” he said, adding that no one knows how all this data will be used afterward.
“The technical infrastructures put in place during the pandemic can easily be used for other purposes, to track dissidents, uncover civil-society networks, etc. Even in Europe, we have seen that police in different countries have accessed the data that restaurants and other businesses collected for contact tracing for completely different purposes,” Dr. Michaelsen said.
By next summer, Greek police will start using new “smart devices” that employ facial-recognition and fingerprint technology, sharing the data with national and European databases. This increases concern among human-rights organizations about personal information being shared between countries, without owners’ consent.
Dr. Molnar worries that contact-tracing mobile apps and other “biosurveillance” methods will soon be required for refugees crossing all EU borders, becoming what she calls “tools of oppression.”
Kian Vesteinsson, research analyst at Freedom House, explains that “enhanced surveillance over public and private speech could allow government officials to deny people entry to a country based on their political, social, or religious views, or that of their family.”
He warns that “without adequate safeguards and oversight, such tools can expose sensitive data to exploitation or abuse by private companies, security agencies, or hackers intent on causing harm.”
One particular surveillance technology being used is voice printing. The U.S. and Germany have both used voice recognition to identify a refugee’s origin. “Digital surveillance can hit marginalized populations disproportionately hard,” Mr. Vesteinsson said.
“German authorities collect and analyze phone and computer data, including location information, from refugees who lack identity papers. Singapore’s migrant workers are required to use COVID-19 apps that are optional for other residents,” he added.
Several examples of new technologies being tested and implemented in refugee camps and along Europe’s borders were collected by the advocacy organization European Digital Rights (EDRi) for its report “Technological Testing Grounds: Border tech is experimenting with people’s lives,” released in late 2020.
The report found that technologies, such as body-heat scanners, iris scanners and social-media scraping had been used against those seeking passage from one country to another for years before the pandemic.
In Greece, which has faced a consistent wave of refugees crossing or seeking to cross its borders, migrants are subjected to AI-powered lie detectors in order to determine whether they are being truthful about their origins and reasons for fleeing their countries, according to Dr. Molnar.
Frontex, the European Union border and coast-guard agency, uses surveillance measures to monitor the waters off Greece and the Greek and Turkish border, in what has been dubbed Operation Poseidon. It has been accused of pushing migrants back from EU waters and preventing them from exercising their right to seek asylum.
In an e-mailed statement, Frontex said: “Two inquiries have found no evidence of any participation by Frontex in any alleged violations of human rights at the Greek sea borders.” The internal inquiries have been criticized by human-rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which is calling for an independent investigation.
Lena Karamanidou, research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University and an expert in monitoring technology at the Greek-Turkish border, says surveillance has escalated to even-more harmful methods, including the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD).
LRADs are also known as acoustic cannons or sonic weapons and are designed to incapacitate by using sound and causing pain and hearing damage. Frontex said in a statement that it is not aware of the use of such equipment by Greek authorities.
The increase in these technologies, says Dr. Karamanidou, will not stop migration. “It will result in migrants being pushed into different routes into the EU, which will be more dangerous and deadlier than the existing ones. It will further inhibit access to international protection and engender more violations of rights.”
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