Migration tracking is a mess

Huub Dijstelbloem in Nature: “As debates over migration, refugees and freedom of movement intensify, technologies are increasingly monitoring the movements of people. Biometric passports and databases containing iris scans or fingerprints are being used to check a person’s right to travel through or stay within a territory. India, for example, is establishing biometric identification for its 1.3 billion citizens.

But technologies are spreading beyond borders. Security policies and humanitarian considerations have broadened the landscape. Drones and satellite images inform policies and direct aid to refugees. For instance, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), maps refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere with its Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT; see www.unitar.org/unosat/map/1928).

Three areas are in need of research, in my view: the difficulties of joining up disparate monitoring systems; privacy issues and concerns over the inviolability of the human body; and ‘counter-surveillance’ deployed by non-state actors to highlight emergencies or contest claims that governments make.

Ideally, state monitoring of human mobility would be bound by ethical principles, solid legislation, periodical evaluations and the checks and balances of experts and political and public debates. In reality, it is ad hoc. Responses are arbitrary, fuelled by the crisis management of governments that have failed to anticipate global and regional migration patterns. Too often, this results in what the late sociologist Ulrich Beck called organized irresponsibility: situations of inadequacy in which it is hard to blame a single actor.

Non-governmental organizations, activists and migrant groups are using technologies to register incidents and to blame and shame states. For example, the Forensic Architecture research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London, has used satellite imagery and other evidence to reconstruct the journey of a boat that left Tripoli on 27 March 2011 with 72 passengers. A fortnight later, it returned to the Libyan coast with just 9 survivors. Although the boat had been spotted by several aircraft and vessels, no rescue operation had been mounted (go.nature.com/2mbwvxi). Whether the states involved can be held accountable is still being considered.

In the end, technologies to monitor mobility are political tools. Their aims, design, use, costs and consequences should be developed and evaluated accordingly….(More)”.