European Border Surveillance System
EUROSUR: Curtailing migrants’ rights or saving lives?
By Anca Gurzu | Wednesday 27 June 2012
The European Commission’s legislative proposal that would step up the surveillance of the EU’s external borders comes with an “alarming overreliance on technology,” militarising a process that can jeopardise migrants’ rights, civil society representatives argued, on June 26.
“They are proposing a technical solution to what we know is a humanitarian solution,” said Ben Hayes, project director at the London-based civil liberties organisation Statewatch, speaking at a conference organised by the Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.
The Commission presented its legislative proposal for the development of the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) in December 2011. Based on a road map, proposed in 2008, the system aims to reduce the number of migrants reaching the Schengen area undetected, prevent cross-border crime and reduce the loss of life. It is a technically complex approach that aims to connect national authorities dealing with border surveillance to a broader EUROSUR network to facilitate information exchange.
Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), satellites and high-resolution cameras are some of the tools that might be used to detect migrant vessels at sea. Not only does the use of this technology raise questions about privacy and data protection, but there is also a concern that EUROSUR could interfere with people’s right to seek asylum since some boats would be returned to the country they sailed off from, according to a study released in June by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, which Hayes co-authored.
“If you are a businessman or you are working for a multinational corporation, we welcome you with open doors, but if you are fleeing persecution, we will meet you with drones and send you to the detention centre,” Hayes said at the conference, describing the message the proposed surveillance system sends to outsiders.
Pierre Barge, president of the European Association for the Defense of Human Rights, said EUROSUR “tries to restrict the mobility of people who have been classified as undesirable”.
Since there is no EU law guiding the system, EUROSUR currently functions as a pilot project on a voluntary basis. The countries taking part in it now are France, Spain, Italy, Slovakia, Finland and Poland. Another important goal of EUROSUR is to establish regional networks with third countries to help deal, among others, with cases of human smuggling and arrivals of migrants by sea. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, is in charge of developing the networks and the services.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) came out with a draft report on the Commission’s proposal, on 20 June, largely in favour of the system. However, the parties will make amendments to the report before it reaches first reading in Parliament.
Henrik Nielsen, head of unit for border management and return policy at the Commission’s DG Home Affairs, said EUROSUR aims to give a clearer picture about what is happening at the EU’s external borders.
“We don’t have a good management of our borders […] if you can just walk through the forests of Eastern Europe and then through Schengen,” he said.
Nielsen also emphasised that increased border surveillance would allow officials to detect vessels at sea more easily and help migrants in need. There is no such mechanism in place right now, as boats are detected mainly by chance, if other vessels pass by, he said. Nielsen cautioned, however, that even with increased border surveillance not all cases of distress will be spotted.
“It still remains a challenge when you have tens of thousands of people travelling this way, but we can have a better chance of saving lives,” he said.
While not questioning the impact EUROSUR could have on saving lives, Hayes pointed out that the Commission’s legislative proposal does not lay out how that will occur or what will happen to those who are rescued. He also argued against the idea of using drones as part of the system.
“We seem to be moving away from the idea of using technology for specific tasks related to border control to this technological dream of creating a surveillance system for policing, combating piracy and fighting terrorism,” he said.
In response, Erik Berglund, of Frontex, said that technology often leads to better solutions and can also be more cost-effective. “Drones could offer better cost-effectiveness, but they need to prove themselves,” Berglund said.