Despite repeatedly documented human rights abuses, the EU is funding new technology to monitor its external border with Turkey.
No European state is as suspected as Greece of violating human rights and international law in its control of the EU’s external borders. Greek border troops use force to drag refugees back into the strait with Turkey without granting them the right to apply for asylum. At sea, as well as on the border river Evros, people in emergency situations are left to fend for themselves or even pushed into the water.
Now the Greek authorities are researching new methods to detect border crossings from the air. This will involve the use of drones that will take over tasks for border surveillance and law enforcement with the help of “real-time artificial intelligence”. The project is called REACTION and researches technologies for land border surveillance. Details of the project were presented by the Greek Minister of Immigration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, at a trade fair in Thessaloniki earlier this month.
Continuation of EU projects
The Greek government is granting €3.7 million in funding for the new research. The project will officially start next November and last for three years. The developed technology is to be used on the Greek as well as the Cypriot border with Turkey.
REACTION is led by the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH) in Thessaloniki. The institution is involved in about two dozen other projects, some of which are also paid by the EU Commission. CERTH received its first EU funding in the ROBORDER project, which was to develop a “fully autonomous border surveillance system” on land, at sea and in the air.
The research in REACTION is intended to build on ROBORDER and the CERETAB and AIDERS projects, which were funded by the EU as well. Among other things, they processed data from drones, sensors and cameras to help first responders in fires, floods or shipwrecks. The same technologies will now be made available to the police.
Using commercially available quadrocopters
The drones being researched in REACTION include commercially available quadrocopters from the Chinese company DJI. They are supposed to watch inaccessible areas either alone or in swarms. The recorded information is to be analysed on board the drone.
In the event of any “threats”, the drone is to autonomously track the persons detected. Deployments could also be “for search and rescue”, according to the minister. However, whether the “innovative algorithms” praised by Mitarakis actually work on board a small DJI drone is questionable. This is suggested by research by the journalist Josephine Lulamae, who did research for the civil rights organisation Algorithmwatch at the trade fair.
Lulumae found an employee of the REACTION research consortium there. He confirmed that it would be difficult to operate on-board intelligence with commercially available drones. This is because DJI’s quadrocopters only have a limited on-board power supply. The research group is therefore pinning its hopes on another drone, which is apparently partly self-built.
“Foliage penetration” on land border
Greece is a leader in the field of “artificial intelligence for border management”, Minister Mitarakis had praised the previous and new research in Thessaloniki. With the FOLDOUT project, these also concern the forested land border with Bulgaria.
In this project, those involved wanted to combine satellites, high-flying platforms, helicopters and drones with motion detectors and telephone surveillance. This technique for “foliage penetration in outermost regions of the EU” was also funded by the EU.
With EFFECTOR, another EU research programme, which specialised in maritime border surveillance, ended in the summer. Drones were also used there, for example at the mouth of the Evros River into the Mediterranean Sea between Greece and Turkey. From Greece, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy and the police as well as the Ministry of Defence were involved. The EU border agency Frontex also took part in the presentation of the project results.
Information for EUROSUR
The data collected in REACTION will be integrated into systems already installed, among them, according to the project description, a network at the police station on the Evros border river. There, too, the EU has already provided funds for faster detection of refugees. An “Automated Border Surveillance System” (ABSS) on the Greek-Turkish border, consisting of surveillance masts with radar, heat sensors and cameras, is to be expanded with another €15 million of EU funding.
However, its purpose is to repel rather than rescue refugees, as Mitarakis, the migration minister, had claimed at the trade fair. This is suggested by research by Deutsche Welle, which recently investigated the functioning of the surveillance network together with Greek researchers. According to the report, people stranded on islands in the Evros River were left to fend for themselves, resulting in the death of a young girl from Syria. The incident took place not far from the ABSS monitoring towers.
The information from the ABSS is also fed into the EU border surveillance system EUROSUR. It is operated by Frontex in Warsaw. Frontex has been repeatedly called upon by human rights groups and lawyers to cancel its missions in Greece and thus draw consequences from the incidents. However, the new head of Frontex, Aija Kalnaja, is sticking to the missions.
Image: Frontex staff at a demonstration of the EFFECTOR system (Frontex).