Intervention – Remote Sensing as Remote Control? A Political Geography of EU Border Surveillance

Adam Levyby Adam Levy, University of Colorado at Boulder

When the EU received the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for advancing “democracy and human rights in Europe”, it joined a group whose more incongruous members also include Barack Obama and Henry Kissinger. In his self-appraisal during the acceptance speech, ‘From war to peace: A European tale’, EU Commission President Barroso was sentimental in congratulating the Union on its “vision of freedom and justice” and he expressed solidarity with “human rights defenders all over the world who…defend the values that we cherish”.1However, given the EU’s increasingly militarized and security-minded response to border control in the face of a perceived crisis of mixed-migration flows and scores of people dying trying to reach its shores (i.e. both asylum seekers and economic migrants), the reality is it remains unworthy of a peace prize. Simply, Barroso’s rhetoric does not match the current situation where migration and border control has been increasingly securitized by the EU and roundly chastised by human rights defenders. Indeed, protesting in an open letter to the Nobel committee several more distinguished Laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu denounced “security based on military force” and underlined the EU’s failure to “realize Nobel’s demilitarized global peace order”.2This letter’s publication coincided with record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean borders of the EU.3 In Amnesty International’s reckoning, the migrants’ distressing treatment constitutes a “humanitarian crisis”.4 Given today’s context, where the EU’s internal ‘communitarization’ of asylum controls and parallel extension of efforts to govern migration flows in the Mediterranean using remotely controlled surveillance drones and biometric data has intensified, claims like Amnesty’s are well founded. Below, I chart the transformation of EU bordering schemes that now work to circumvent human rights obligations once championed by Member States, and use the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) as a case study. This analysis is best understood within the EU’s wider “integrated border management model” led by Frontex, its border control arm and EUROSUR’s godfather. The results show how a critical geopolitics of migration management can explain EU moves to reconstruct sovereignty and govern territory using geographic knowledge like GIS and remote sensing technologies. This analysis of EU crises and their controls matters because it hints at the future paradigm of biometric and biopolitical mobility regimes – when drones and databases are privileged over binding commitments to human rights like refugee protection.

EU bordering efforts contradict its modern geopolitical vision of a seamless Schengen space. This vision has transformed remarkably since the post-war era when the UN’s Refugee Convention (1951) originally defined obligations to asylum-seekers and the EU’s Treaty of Rome (1957) established the free movement of workers in the new European Economic Area. At mid-century, these rights oriented frames prevailed among Member States while the EU worked to pool coal, steel, and labor among a half-dozen countries. Soon after, by contrast, the EU’s pursuit of a common frontier during the 1980s and 1990s led to the Schengen Agreement establishing an internal border-free area and the Dublin Convention unifying asylum controls, with an aim to criminalize rather than protect migrants. Since 1999 and the shift from an economic to a political EU with the Treaty of Amsterdam, Brussels has attempted to unify migration policy beyond the confines of its internal border zone.5 Now, the EU maintains an externally oriented position to harmonize controls via securitization and criminalization. Consistently, rather than focusing on human rights, the EU has worked to resolve concerns about detention and later denial of movement to “persons in distress who might be migrants”. These efforts appear in the adoption of the common rules, standards, tools, and expertise inside the EU and with its neighbors and even third-countries farther afield, processes and practices best labeled as “remote control”.6 Accordingly, the EU’s vision includes technologies ranging from the once futuristic (e.g. remote sensing of border zones and biometric passports for travelers linked to visa information systems like the Schengen Information System or pilot-less surveillance drones) to the more legalistic (e.g. readmission agreements, a Returns Directive, visa facilitation programs, and visa liberalization regimes) or the flatly political (e.g. Mobility Partnerships). These tools are evident in the latest version of EUROSUR. In showing how the EU envisions “saving the lives of migrants” crossing its borders via such projects, my intervention here outlines the production of a humanitarian problem in a hegemonic geopolitical vision. Put differently, below I offer a human rights-oriented sketch of EUROSUR via a genealogy of remote controls. As a paradigmatic case, EUROSUR is important for geographers and activists given its extensive and invasive use of remote sensing including satellite platforms, pilotless drones, and biometric databases to externalize border controls and deny access to migrants from afar. The result of these policies keeping people at bay is a potential situation where people or migrants in distress might not be able to request asylum or may be detained improperly, and constitutes a human rights violation. Since it is also a violation to expel people to a place where their rights might not be guaranteed, i.e. refoulement, EUROSUR can serve to undermine existing EU obligations to protect human rights and, therefore, cannot go unchallenged.

Why EUROSUR? In 2008, EUROSUR was born via executive fiat in the EU Commission. With its €340m budget set to run from October 2013-2020 alongside its €1.1b Entry-Exit System/Registered Traveler program, its moves to externalize control hint at how such governance schemes are emerging as harbingers of EU exclusion. Sovereignty-wise, EUROSUR works at the national and European levels and in cooperation with neighboring third countries while offering an obligatory nod to non-refoulement demands. In drawing on a geography of “National Coordination Centers” for information sharing, Frontex promotes EUROSUR as a “service provider” needed to “develop new and integrate old capacities” where “surveillance measures are risk analysis and intelligence-driven (no fences, no walls)”. Technically, EUROSUR’s existence is predicated upon “the absence of a common regulatory basis for Member States to exchange information and cooperate in the area of border surveillance”. Thus, says its mandate, EUROSUR seeks to analyze and coordinate intelligence and geographic data in a regulatory area rather than build physical barriers. It focuses on visualizing external border sections and the “pre-frontier” area like a (air)port and the event of the (illicit) crossing itself. In the Mediterranean, EUROSUR seeks to monitor potential migrants, trafficked persons, and smugglers beyond the current 40-mile limit of surface radar. For EUROSUR, Frontex agents claim, the need is most urgent at the southern maritime borders of the EU, and its absence “mean[s] that unauthorized border crossings…may go undetected”. Almost as an afterthought, the vision then concedes “the already unacceptable death toll of migrants drowning when trying to reach EU shores might even further increase”. As a “technical project” consistent with the Commission’s “integrated border management” vision and fully endorsed by the Council through various conclusions, EUROSUR gives more political legitimacy to Member States and the EU Commission to continue to act in a certain exclusionary way7. To date, EUROSUR remains subject to tests, including some that have exposed problems admitting persons to Member States like Malta after they were identified as distressed during a Frontex-led pilot operation in 2012.8

Originally seeking to “save lives”, the search-and-rescue aspect of the EUROSUR program has since shifted from its primary justification to a meddlesome obligation as evident in its policy and practice. According to its own executive summary from 2011, EUROSUR’s goal is to improve the “situational awareness and reaction capability…when combating irregular migration and cross-border crime. Hence EUROSUR should be seen in the context of the progressive establishment of a European model of integrated border management.9 In this view, Frontex agents express confidence in the project’s value as a future icon of EU migration and border control and this enthusiasm shows EUROSUR’s analytical value. When it works to deny protections to potential asylum seekers, it becomes apparent that EUROSUR is best analyzed as a political effort rather than ‘just’ a technical control. In seeking to develop GIS-based “event layers” and produce “depersonalized migrant profiles” using “imagery and geo-data sub-layers” EUROSUR’s zest for geographic fixes remains self-evident even if its necessity, proportionality, and legitimacy remain less clear. Such appeals to research-oriented GIS are not accidental. Frontex, EUROSUR’s home institution, has used its privileged advisory board role in the EU-wide Security Research Program as an “opportunity” to fund, test, and develop surveillance tools it wants to use.10 In fact, Frontex’s old Director of Research and Development, Mr. Berglund, is its new Director of Capacity-Building – that is, he now uses mature tools he once nurtured at the proposal stage. Thus, it is worth noting where EUROSUR logic defines key problems as not only geographic, but also via governmental, reactionary, and militaristic terms. In such “impact assessments”, EUROSUR’s aims to enhance cooperation and information exchange of border control authorities work to obscure rescue or rights discourses. Its logic holds problems of scale and sovereignty are understood properly via a language of “levels” and a focus on the “unauthorized”. This approach is consistent since EUROSUR prioritizes the “general problems faced in border surveillance” as “irregular migration, loss of life at sea” and “cross-border crime”. In analyzing how Frontex agents legitimate EUROSUR, its political geography emerges via attention to prescriptions for more “specific problems” like “insufficient interagency cooperation and information sharing”. In offering technical solutions, it serves “to detect and track small boats used for irregular migration and illicit drug smuggling” via “earth observation satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles in combination with ship [based] reporting systems”, thus revealing the prospective geographies of EU territoriality. In sum, EUROSUR agents’ efforts to reconcile the EU’s human rights obligations, humanitarian aims, and security priorities reveal more than a mere apolitical shift.

Despite technological appeal, EUROSUR has met broad suspicion. Observers from Statewatch, a civil liberties watchdog, and’s influential ‘Danger Room’ blog about the future of national security have caught on to EUROSUR. The latter’s coverage, in posts like “Europe Wants Drones to Spot Illegal Immigrants at Sea”, is consistent with attention to drones and so-called “smart border controls”.11 Even Popular Science has noticed how in the US-Mexico “Borderworld” such efforts are the “next step” for border managers tasked with externalizing security risks, i.e. “reengineering homeland security”.12 In the US, EU, and Australian migration contexts, academics have shown how this “harmonized restrictionism” has replaced a more “uncoordinated liberalism”.13 Such moves are central to plans like EUROSUR and mark the latest attempts to make certain categories of people like potential migrants more visible and, thus, manageable but still no less vulnerable. For such critics and technocrats, EUROSUR is best seen as part of the wider shift in EU attempts to “push-back” controls beyond Member State territory to make it difficult to access. To them, the extension of controls via remote sensing-based surveillance and database analysis “can really only be understood as an attempt to avoid responsibility for asylum claims”.14 Still, the problem of what to offer people rescued or observed, i.e. readmission, return, or refuge, remains unresolved.

Concerns from insiders also prompted changes to EUROSUR during 2012. Within the EU, worries led to amendments when its own roundtable, the Meijers Committee of Experts on Migration Law, lobbied to reinsert language about saving lives and strengthening protections for non-refoulement. Their comments also discouraged the erosion of “search-and-rescue” and “protecting the lives of migrants” language and argued for the need to delete language about (and data concerning) “migrant profiles”.15 In November 2012, the relevant amendments to the proposed EUROSUR regulation concerning non-refoulement obligations and data security were adopted. Thanks to support from liberal Dutch MEPs, these moves offer evidence of moderation in tone or timbre rather than a change of tune governing EU exclusion. For example, changes to the text proposed by the Commission were amended to remove prejudices against “situations which might turn out to be irregular migration and cross border crime with an aim to protect and save lives of people in distress”. In the latest draft, more robust protections for asylum and protection in cases of removal and expulsion were added, as were categories such as “unaccompanied minors” and “trafficked persons”. Still, in an expansive geographic sense, the notion of “cross-border crime” was redefined to go beyond the external limits of Member States, i.e. “at their proximity” since “trafficking, smuggling, and other illicit activities have a cross border dimension”.16 While the latest revisions have softened in some ways like increased attention to existing non-refoulement obligations, the wider EU trend to use projects that are exclusionary rather than rights-based remains its preferred practice.17

Despite the November 2012 “orientation vote” on EUROSUR adopting softer language on refoulement, Frontex still offers a security-oriented view rather than a human rights-based one. For example, in its December 2012 “Technological Briefing” to the European Security Round Table in Brussels, Frontex Directors (including Mr. Berglund) outlined plans for “Making EUROSUR operational by 2013”. There, the project vision remained faithful to the original text rather than the amended versions mindful of refoulement obligations. This stubbornness was evident when agents privileged both the Member States’ and Frontex’s need to generate “a common framework of infrastructure…to quickly detect and respond to changing routes and methods used for irregular migration and cross-border crime”. This old view neglects issues of refoulement and discounts amendments stressing the presumption of innocence in migration processing. Ominously, the accompanying slideshow used a crude EU-centered map showing arrows (representing immigrant flows) converging on a generic Europe. The effect mirrored the cartographic style favored in the ‘geopolitische kartographieor ‘suggestive cartography’18 school of German and Italian fascists; interpretive keys were similarly absent but the idea of invasion remained indelible. Structurally, the presentation offered an article-by-article summary of EUROSUR’s aims, including the prevention of loss of migrant lives. However, it primarily concentrated on technologically enabled risk analysis layers involving change-detection imagery and related geo-data based layers used to build analytical profiles rather than life-saving applications of surveillance tools. Equally insidious in this regard for remote control and the use of geographic knowledge was how agents promoted the “common application of surveillance tools” from Article 12 of the proposed EUROSUR regulation, i.e. the monitoring of country ports, coasts, tracking of vessels, monitoring of designated areas, and environmental assessments”.19 According to the plan, all ecological data from EU satellite projects are included in the scope of the project. Moreover, despite not mentioning pilotless drones in their presentation, they do remain in the draft regulation. In this way, EUROSUR boasts the ability to rely on “satellite imagery and sensors mounted on any kind of platform” but neglects its ability to really assist those persons in distress in favor of just watching. In fact, rather than mention drones per se, the aim of such vague “platform” language is designed not to deny a role to them or simply remain secretive, but to legalize not-yet-imagined ways to watch. Consistent with changes to draft amendments to the Frontex legislation in 2011, such moves give more powers and competencies to the organization and continue to stress a EU/Member State ‘need approach’ rather than focusing on actual ‘people in need’.20

A critical look at the EU as a geopolitical actor illuminates how, in its bureaucratic practices and projects like EUROSUR, human rights obligations to distressed people who might be refugees are overshadowed by vague security concerns and technophilia. The transformation of EU support for search-and-rescue efforts and asylum protections shows how rights are marginalized via new surveillance tools and legal devices engineered to deter unwanted migrants. As key vectors in the construction of sovereignty, these variable border/migration controls highlight core paradoxes dogging EU moves to monitor and govern borders uniformly or even humanely. This case thus usefully reveals the variegated character of EU authority, legitimacy, sovereignty, and territory. Seen in response to migration crises and humanitarian or security dilemmas, EUROSUR reflects current and future struggles to organize European space and govern mobility in it. The use of externalization tools such as pilotless drones and GIS as spatial fixes to rescale territorial controls away from what the Nobel Committee called “the continent of peace” should give all geographers much to consider since how remote sensing and GIS projects are funded and applied affects how barriers between people rise and fall.


3 Frontex noted 75,000 people were denied entry by sea in 2011 and 35,000 during the first half of 2012, or a 3% annual decline. 96% of all irregular crossings were in the Mediterranean region; 67% were in Greece, Malta (14%), Italy (12%), and Spain (7%)…/Risk…/FRAN_Q1_2012.pdf; The UN said 1,500 people died in transit in 2011 while another 170 were reported dead through July 2012. See note 5.

6 These mechanisms work via two techniques. One, “remote control”, involves the extension of sovereign migration controls beyond a common territory. The second refers to extending governance via “liminal porocratic institutions”, or bordering regimes that rely on cyber-technology to govern deportability, detention, and off-shore camps (see Bialasiewicz L [ed] [2011] Europe in the World: EU Geopolitics and the Making of European Space. Aldershot: Ashgate and Papadopoulos D, Stephenson N and Tsianos V [2008] Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-first Century. London: Pluto).

13 See Joly D (1995) Migrants and asylum-seekers in contemporary Europe. In Cohen R (ed) The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

15 Including a bizarre “white list” of safe travelers to balance EUROPOL’s “blacklist.” See See also note 11, p. 26.

18 Boria E (2008) Geopolitical maps: A sketch history of a neglected trend in cartography. Geopolitics 13:278-308

19 Interview and correspondence with anonymous EU border manager. December-January 2012.