Using tech to keep track of refugees

19th February 2016
Joe Bush

Political unrest and conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has led to an enormous number of migrants entering Europe over the last 18 months, with over a million migrants arriving in Europe in 2015. While most travel by sea, some also make their way over land through Turkey and Albania - and this has created a humanitarian crisis within the EU.

Many countries have struggled to cope with this influx of migrants and resolving how best to resettle refugees has created division throughout the EU – mainly due to the disproportionate burden faced by some countries, particularly the nations where the majority of migrants have been arriving - Greece, Italy and Hungary. Indeed, EU leaders have thrown their weight behind efforts to work with Turkey to limit the flow of refugees to Europe, with German chancellor Angela Merkel labelling it a priority in an announcement made earlier today.

In an effort to bring the refugee crisis under control, EU states, in collaboration with border agency Frontex, has called on tech companies to submit designs for apps, databases, biometrics and smart cards to track and manage refugees before they arrive in Europe.

One suggested proposal is a smartcard system that could be used to control the distribution of food and accommodation, whole another suggests tempting refugees to download tracking apps to their phones by offering helpful information on sea crossings and differing conditions in various EU countries.

The Greek island of Lesbos (which has reportedly been pushed to ‘breaking point’ with around 2,000 people arriving each day), held a meeting in January, attended by representatives from EU member states and tech companies including Securiport LLC and Crossmatch (specialists in the design of biometric recognition technology), Unisys, Thales and 3M, who were invited to present proposals on how technology could be implemented to relieve the situation.

With the crisis escalating, speed is obviously a defining factor, with the EU wanting to look at solutions that can be rolled-out in a matter of months. Rudolph De Schipper of Unisys said he expected there would be a tendering and procurement process across the EU. “We can go from a situation where there is hardly any control to a situation where you can see where people are in Europe. The moment you start controlling things in difficult situations people tend to comply.”

The Lesbos meeting saw Unisys submit a proposal for its ‘refugee management suite’ which could provide pre-registration of people seeking asylum; use biometric data gathering to track refugees (via smartphone apps), before they reach the EU; use identity cards to track migrants once they have arrived and use a system of red flags and data analytics to highlight individuals with backgrounds which merit investigation.

De Schipper also highlighted that the current fingerprinting system used by the EU (which aims to prevent people claiming asylum in one country), was not designed to deal with the sheer volume of people now entering the EU, and fails to capture important background information that could potentially link an individual with terrorist groups (there have been fears that two of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks last November came into Europe via a route commonly used by refugees).

Unisys also claimed that it already has the intellectual property rights to the software required and to implement such a system would simply be a matter of integrating different data into one system. The company’s Roland Heesen commented: “We have the engine and we have the wheels, we just need to put it all together to make a car that works.”

However, refugee support groups and privacy organisations have warned that information on weather, safety and country conditions are already available to refugees from other informal networks and that (combined with the fact that the EU does not want migrants crossing borders), means it would be unlikely that refugees would download a separate app which would make them easier to track, follow and intercept.

The journey migrants make from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is a notoriously perilous one, so the chances of smartphones being lost or damaged is also very high. In addition, there is the issue of on-the-ground data collection in countries outside of the EU - where such activity conducted by western European organisations would be viewed with suspicion from national intelligence agencies.

Dr Maurice Stierl of WatchTheMed Alarm Phone, an organisation that operates an emergency phone service for migrants whose boats get into trouble during crossings of the various seas around Europe, reiterated that many refugees already have access to sophisticated networks that provide them with real time information such as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Twitter and Facebook, so would be unlikely to subscribe to an additional app that tracks their progress.

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