By Petra Molnar
The three camps of Lesvos, Old Moria, and Moria 2.0 all tell a story of the multi-layered ecosystem which gives rise to the allure of quick fixes facilitated by technology. Yet the complexity of human movement is nothing but simple, writes Petra Molnar.
Petra Molnar is a lawyer with the Migration and Technology Monitor and the Refugee Law Lab.
The Greek island of Lesvos is a complex place. Wild corn grows on dusty roads while olive groves are perfumed by burning branches as farmers prepare for the growing season. Unfortunately, this smell is also reminiscent of the tragic fire in the Moria refugee camp last September, when thousands of people on the move were displaced and hurriedly herded into a new camp on the windswept peninsula of Kara Tepe, known as Moria 2.0.
This ongoing humanitarian crisis is the setting of various migration management experiments supported and actively encouraged by the EU, codified in its Migration Pact, and reconfirmed at this week’s press conference with the EU’s Johansson and the Greek Minister of Immigration, Notis Mitarachi.
I attended the press conference, and while the Commissioner and Minister spoke of the importance of human rights and dignity for all, the conference was replete with explicit messaging around the ‘management’ of migration, a ‘Europeanized’ deportations process, protecting the border, and strengthening the work of Frontex and the Hellenic Coast Guard.
Perhaps most disturbingly, illegal pushbacks in the Aegean have been widely reported.
Last Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a strong statement calling for a full investigation into the practice. However, both Commissioner Johansson and Minister Mitarachi refused to acknowledge that the pushbacks are occurring. Instead, the conversation once again turned to the overused trope of human smuggling, and the need to strengthen the EU’s borders at all costs.
One of the ways to strengthen its migration management machine that the EU is increasingly exploring is various technological experiments.
At the Migration and Technology Monitor and the Refugee Law Lab, we have been monitoring the impacts of various surveillance and automated technologies at and around borders, and it is increasingly clear that the frontiers of Europe are a perfect sandbox to test out unpiloted drones, various biometrics, and automated decision-making, as our report from November 2020 shows.
On Friday, March 26, Frontex put out a press release, proudly stating it commissioned a fulsome report from the Rand Corporation on various uses of Artificial Intelligence in border operations, including: “automated border control, object recognition to detect suspicious vehicles or cargo and the use of geospatial data analytics for operational awareness and threat detection.”
In Greece, the 5 proposed Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs) on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos have all been reported to include “camera surveillance with motion analysis algorithms monitoring the behaviour and movement of centre residents.”
Commissioner Johansson has been adamant that these 5 new camps will not be “closed,” but this is just semantics. The press conference confirmed that the camps at least on Lesvos and Samos will be with controlled entry and exit points and various surveillance features.
Plus, the proposed site for the Lesvos camp is geographically segregated far away from the city of Mytilene, as well as grocery stores and basic necessities. How do I know? Because we drove to the new site for nearly two hours and it was virtually impossible to get to or even confirm its exact location.
Clearly, the situation is very complicated and tense on Lesvos. The Commissioner’s visit was preceded by a protest from the local community, calling for the EU to close the camps and chanting military slogans, smaller but not unlike previous protests and far-right violence. Yet, “spring is the best time to prepare for winter,” wrote Commissioner Johansson in advance of her visit to Lesvos and Samos.
It is hard to put into words what the situation in the Moria 2.0 camp is now like. The camp is highly securitized with a heavy police presence during our tour, with dirty standing water, overflowing garbage, and barbed wire and fencing on the ground where children play.
We were swiftly escorted out by the police as people started to voice their hurt and frustration, shouting for liberation and safety for their babies as the metal doors slammed shut on the crowd. It is hard to argue that more securitization, surveillance, and various technological experiments really the answer here.
The three camps of Lesvos, Old Moria, Moria 2.0, and the new proposed camp, all tell a story of the multi-layered ecosystem which gives rise to the allure of quick fixes facilitated by technology. Yet the complexity of human movement is nothing but simple.
Like Commissioner Johansson, I am also an outsider on Lesvos, witnessing the situation. However, if the EU was really committed to understanding the situation, it would have prioritized people’s lived experiences in the inhuman camp conditions and not been swayed by a fancy new basketball court put in yesterday or a fly-by helicopter trip over yet another far-flung refugee camp.
Many of the people in the Kara Tepe camp voiced similar concerns. Shukran, an artist from Afghanistan who has been on Lesvos for two years, painted a portrait of Commissioner Johanssen and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “We wanted to give these paintings to the Commissioner, but unfortunately, we could not meet her here today. We urgently need to leave, it’s been too long.” For now, Shukran’s tent remains his gallery.