Drones are increasingly being used for humanitarian purposes around the world. That ought to include providing safer voyage for the thousands of people who have made the some-times perilous journey to a better life in the West. But will the European Union instead find a more sinister use for drones as part of surveillance efforts designed to send migrants home?
Until very recently, drones were more commonly associated with taking lives than with saving them. To their supporters, particularly in the U.S. government, which has used them most extensively, drones offered a solution to the problems of the 21st century global ” “battlefield.” They made it possible for the U.S. military and intelligence services to carry out calibrated attacks on enemies anywhere in the world. To their critics, these “eyes in the sky” heralded a frightening new age of unaccountable semi-automated warfare through the proliferation of a new technology governed by hazy ethical and legal norms.
In the last few years, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have acquired a new humanitarian rationale that is likely to fuel their proliferation. Governments and non-governmental organizations have adapted them for a variety of civilian purposes, including disaster management and relief, search-and-rescue operations, mapping the impact of climate change and conflict mitigation in countries that include the Philippines, Haiti, Nepal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
A number of governments have also developed, or are in the process of developing, UAVs and UMVs (unmanned maritime vessels) to patrol their land and maritime borders in response to the 21st century’s new migratory flows. This transformation should not entirely surprise us. Just because drones were originally designed for military use does not make them intrinsically sinister or exclusively military. UAVs clearly have the ability to carry out or facilitate a range of humanitarian functions, and this potential should be welcomed and explored further.
As instruments of border enforcement, however, this transformation is not necessarily as benign as it might seem. Border enforcement or “migration management” is a process in which humanitarian and security concerns often overlap or contradict each other: Governments are often as concerned with the exclusion of unwanted migrants as they are with rescuing migrants in distress, and the enhanced monitoring and surveillance capability that drones provide often reflects this ambiguity.
The most comprehensive attempt to develop drones as instruments of border enforcement has been undertaken by the European Union, which is currently planning to make RPAS (remotely piloted aerial systems) a major component of its border surveillance operations by 2028. When the European Commission unveiled its Eurosur surveillance program in 2012, the EU human rights commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom promised that it would “help detect and fight criminal networks’ activities and be a crucial tool for saving migrants who put their lives at risk trying to reach EU shores.”
“Saving lives” is routinely invoked by European governments as a justification for new border control technologies, and such justifications have become even more urgent as the migrant death toll in Europe’s maritime borders continues to rise. But it is not clear whether the enhanced detection capability offered by drones will be directed primarily toward saving lives or stopping migrants from reaching Europe.
A 2013 technical report on the use of drones produced by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre is almost entirely concerned with their effectiveness in detecting and monitoring “targets of interest” on the high seas – including the possibility that drones may be used to listen in on migrant mobile phone signals. These priorities raise the possibility that the intelligence information acquired through drone surveillance may be used against their “targets,” by tracking their movements and collecting information that migrants may not wish to divulge – and which European privacy laws do not oblige them to divulge.
Detection is clearly an indispensable component of search-and-rescue operations, and drones certainly have the potential to facilitate that. In some cases smaller micro-drones might even be able to provide supplies of food and water to stricken boats, but, ultimately, search-and-rescue operations require skilled personnel on the scene. Drones can direct naval and coastguard forces to make this possible, but the same information can also make it easier for governments to send migrants back to where they came from by monitoring the origin of their boats so that they can be intercepted and returned before or even after reaching European territorial waters, without assessing their claims for international protection.
It is certainly possible to imagine a future in which drones are used to save migrant lives, but there is also a more dystopian scenario in which Europe’s new “eyes in the sky” oblige the men, women and children who cross Europe’s borders to undertake even more dangerous journeys to escape detection. If that happens, then drones will become one more component in the continent’s technological barriers and another attempted “solution” to a humanitarian crisis that requires political, economic and social policies on a global scale rather than the futile search for technological supremacy at the border, which has already had such tragic consequences in the new century.