A Falco Xplorer, a drone produced by the Italian company Leonardo (Credits Leonardo)
A Falco Xplorer, a drone produced by the Italian company Leonardo (Credits Leonardo)

Drones in Niger and radar in the Mediterranean: EU spends billions on high-tech borders

Two studies published by Statewatch and EuroMed Rights document European investment in border management. Money is being used to develop new technological solutions, but also to train African authorities, without regard for the rights of migrants and local populations. Among the beneficiaries are Italian companies and universities

Rosita Rijtano

Rosita RijtanoRedattrice lavialibera

10 luglio 2023

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Drones capable of intercepting small aircraft and long-range maritime radar. These are two of the nine projects that Leonardo and Engineering Ingegneria Informatica have developed thanks to EU funding. The funding aims to provide technological solutions for border control and the repatriation of migrants. The two companies, in collaboration with other EU companies and even some Italian universities, have been awarded six million euros. But they are not alone. Between 2014 and 2022, Europe is funding 49 such projects, with a total of 250 million euros.

Two studies published today by Statewatch and EuroMed Rights, which lavialibera was able to preview, expose how the European Union is spending billions of euros to protect its borders, investing not only in the purchase and research of high-tech tools, but also in the training and equipping of law enforcement agencies, both in the MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa) and in other African states, such as Niger, and in the Balkans. Money that has been and will be used to build up a surveillance infrastructure at the EU's internal and external borders, with "no regard for the rights of people on the move or the local population", the report's authors denounce.

Read more: The triple injustice against the Global South

Leonardo and Italian universities together for hi-tech EU borders

Statewatch's analysis focuses on the state of internal borders, highlighting that the budget that the Union has set aside between 2021 and 2027 to contribute to border policies has increased by 94 per cent compared to the previous six years (2014 and 2020), reaching €115 billion. There is a strong focus on Greece, which will receive a total of €977 million for migration management between 2014 and 2020, and €1.5 billion between 2021 and 2027. Money specifically earmarked for strengthening Greek borders has also increased, jumping from €303 million to more than €1 billion, an increase of 248 per cent. Other significant increases concern the borders of France and Croatia, which will receive 200 and 100 percent more funding respectively than six years ago.

No significant increase is expected for Italy, but our country - explains lavialiberaChris Jones, director of Statewatch - "has always been one of the European states that receives the largest share of EU funds". Specifically, between 2014 and 2020, our government received the highest amount of EU funding for border policy implementation after Greece, totalling more than €830 million. Forecasts for 2021-2017 see the figure rising to €911 million, putting the peninsula in fourth place behind Greece (€1.5 billion), France (€1.2 billion) and Spain (€922 million).

Not all of the budget will be spent on hi-tech systems," the authors of the dossier point out, estimating that billions of euros will be spent for this purpose. This is echoed in a recent EU Commission document, which identifies cutting-edge technologies and large shared databases as a political priority. To get an idea of what the future of the EU's borders might look like, it is interesting to look at the research projects that the Union has chosen to support.

Italy is also a leader in this field. Leonardo, a leading Italian company in the defence, security and aerospace sector, whose largest shareholder is the Ministry of Defence, has participated in three European funding programmes in recent years. The one it is leading, which also involves other Italian companies and the University of Bologna, is called Marisa and aims to "combat irregular migration" as well as "drug trafficking" by developing a surveillance system at sea that can correlate data from different sources, including social networks. Meanwhile, Ranger, which will end in 2019, involves the development of a long-range maritime surveillance radar to identify 'suspicious vessels'. Finally, there is Promenade, which will end in 2023 and also involves the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Milano). The aim is to develop a platform that uses artificial intelligence and big data to improve the tracking of ships. Among the projects in which Engineering Ingegneria Informatica, an Italian company that develops IT solutions, is involved is Flexi-Cross, which involves the creation of innovative solutions to improve border controls, including biometric data verification and real-time identification.

Read more: With its new law, the government of Giorgia Meloni will create a new army of irregular migrants, associations say

Investments for the EU's external borders

Hi-tech development affects not only internal borders but also the process of externalisation of borders, as highlighted by the report published by Euromed Rights, which focuses on the impact that the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (Eutf for Africa), a five-billion-euro fund launched in 2015, has had in the Middle East and West African states, although – as Antonella Napolitano, author of the study, points out - it has also had an impact on other parts of the African continent, Although, as Antonella Napolitano, author of the study, points out, these projects also have an impact in other parts of the African continent, particularly in the Sahel belt, from where around 90 per cent of migrants arriving in Italy come.

Two important examples:

  • 11.5 million for the purchase of drones, cameras and surveillance software in Niger, and the Imsi Catcher, a device that intercepts mobile phone traffic and tracks its location;
  • 28 million to implement a nationwide biometric identification system in Senegal.

The case of Algeria is exemplary: in April 2019, Cepol, the European law enforcement training agency, organised sessions for Algerian police officers to teach them digital surveillance techniques. Skills that, Napolitano warns, can also be used against local activists, creating further political instability that, rather than curbing migration, helps to fuel it: 'We do not know whether the Algerian authorities have actually used these courses to combat irregular migration,' the researcher says. Instead, we found a temporal coincidence with the protests in Algeria in 2019. The uprisings were followed by online disinformation and propaganda campaigns by pro-regime groups'. Various European and international institutions, such as NATO, have also held similar courses in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

No respect for human rights

According to the authors of the dossiers, the use of new technologies at the EU's borders poses significant challenges for the respect of human rights, due to the large amount of information they collect and the prejudices they inherit from people. Just think of EUMigraTool, a tool created thanks to the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, which aims to provide forecasts on the origin and number of migrants heading for a particular European country. The data that will feed this kind of crystal ball, with which the EU hopes to anticipate migratory flows in order to stem them, will be the most disparate: from TV reports to news in online newspapers, passing through social networks. Civil society and academics have called for a ban on their use and a halt to the development of predictive systems in this area, pointing out that they could create and exacerbate unfounded assumptions that certain groups of people pose a security risk.

However, no EU legislation has addressed this issue, and in fact the use of these tools has been encouraged. The latest evidence: the proposed EU law on artificial intelligence, which will protect citizens of the old continent from the misuse of technology, does not provide the same protection for migrants.

Another issue raised in the Statewatch dossier concerns the effectiveness of border fortifications. In this regard, the case of Spain's southern border, which has been technologically fortified by both right-wing and left-wing governments over the past 30 years, is significant. In the beginning, the infrastructure consisted of a simple barbed wire fence, while today it includes drones, satellites, thermal cameras and facial recognition systems. But the main result has been 'the diversion of migratory flows to other, more dangerous, costly and time-consuming routes, with the consequent staggering increase in deaths at sea', Jones recalls, concluding that the production of these technologies also causes considerable environmental damage: "Sensors and cameras are made by extracting precious natural resources such as cobalt, nickel and lithium, further impoverishing the global south."

This article was translated by Kompreno with the support of DeepL.

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