Migration has always been a part of human history, but today tens of millions of people are displaced in the largest forced displacement since World War II.
The UN Refugee Agency reported that by the end of 202189.3 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence, fear of persecution and human rights violations. The war in Ukraine pushed that number to over 100 million people by 2022, meaning one in 78 people on Earth is on the move.
And unlike in decades past, new technologies are changing the narratives of their movement — both by strengthening and expanding borders, and by acting as a lifeline for those trying to cross them.
“Digital technologies – in particular surveillance technologies, human mobility control technologies such as those of drones and AI systems that track human mobility – [are] used to change this perception and function of the boundary, a stable point on the map, and turn it into a comprehensive control system,” said Myria Georgiou, co-author of The digital frontier: migration, technology, power.
According to Georgiou, this system shifts borders beyond the territory of a country marked on a map, and beyond the border checkpoint. “People who move are very often monitored throughout their lives,” she said Spark host Nora Young.
For example, she said biometric data from someone in a refugee camp in Lebanon could be shared with authorities in their next destinations.
“If they try to enter Europe, this data will be used by authorities of a European state,” Georgiou said. “And then when they move to a European city, the same data is added to a data profile that collects information about where people live, whether they work, whether they have access to healthcare or education.”
Part of what makes such comprehensive surveillance possible is the fact that migrants and refugees today have little choice but to rely heavily on smartphones, GPS and social media to make their travels. They arrange transport and temporary shelter at the new destination using social networks and messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, and plot their routes on Google Maps.
According to journalist Sally Hayden, for some, a smartphone is the only means of broadcasting an emergency call.
“I spoke to a lot of people who would go without food to pay for [mobile] “They would risk their lives to protect their phone because they know if the phone isn’t with them it could be a death sentence.”
Hayden’s work focuses on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises. She documents the journeys of people who survived one of the deadliest migratory routes across the central Mediterranean in her book My fourth time, we drowned: taking refuge on the world’s deadliest migration route.
She said Spark that while social media may be the only way for migrants to keep their loved ones informed, many choose not to share their real struggles.
“They really don’t want their relatives to know that they are suffering,” she said. “They might have very little information on their social media accounts, or they might post things about, you know, how much fun they are having somewhere. And it might not be the real place they are.”
Smugglers, meanwhile, can use social media to attract desperate migrants by presenting their routes and services as much safer and more glamorous than they actually are.
“They will post, ‘You can travel in a nice luxury boat,’ and then the person will arrive, and it will turn out to be a thin dinghy which is quite dangerous,” she said.
The ubiquity of social media has also led to practices such as ransom crowdfunding, where smugglers encourage migrants to seek help online to fund their perilous journeys.
“That means the amounts requested have actually increased because this way of raising money is there,” she says.
Border privacy a concern for everyone
Lawyer and researcher Petra Molnar says it is important to create legal and humanitarian frameworks to regulate new technology that many countries use to monitor or enforce their borders.
Molnar studies technology currently used at borders, such as drone surveillance and sound cannons to deter people from crossing, and experimental tools such as lie detectors powered by artificial intelligence.
But migrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers who may enter a country illegally, come across surveillance technologies at many points in their journey.
“Things like speech recognition software for refugee applications, and all kinds of different ways that a person can be tracked if they’re facing immigration, detention or deportation, for example, like ankle monitors,” Molnar said.
“There is a huge appetite [by border service agencies] to use these technologies for just about a person’s entire journey. And yet the law and oversight mechanisms have not caught up.”
Fair and safe application of border technology can benefit people beyond migrants and refugees, including tourists and others traveling for leisure or work.
Examples of this aren’t hard to find: Earlier this year, the Canadian Border Services Agency discussed plans to introduce facial recognition technology, advance customs declarations and electronic gates in the country’s airports to speed up the border crossing process.
Privacy advocates expressed concerns about the security costs associated with these plans, saying it is important for travelers to give consent before providing their information and to know how the information might be used by the government.
According to Molnar, that is why privacy at the border should be everyone’s concern. “Actually, it’s kind of a global conversation about what kind of society we want to live in and what kinds of technological interventions we agree to.”
Written by Olsy Sorokina with files from News. Produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke and Nora Young.