As the European Union amends the Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act) exploring the impact of AI systems on marginalised communities is vital. AI systems are increasingly developed, tested and deployed to judge and control migrants and people on the move in harmful ways. How can the AI Act prevent this? And will AI-based surveillance tech solve the EU’s “refugee crisis”?1

Since the peak of Europe’s “refugee crisis” with more than a million asylum application being filed in 2015 and 2016, and while thousands of migrants die in the Mediterranean Sea every year, the EU has invested heavily in military-grade technology to deter refugees. A substantial part of this money flows into the development and deployment of artificial intelligence-powered border technology. From AI lie-detectors, AI risk profiling systems used to assess likely good of ‘illegal’ movement, to the rapidly expanding tech-surveillance complex at Europe’s borders, AI systems are increasingly a feature of migration management in the EU.

Number of recorded deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea from 2014 to 2021 (Source:
Recorded deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, 2014 to 2021 (Source:

This blog post is about the EU’s AI Act and our proposal for amendments to this important piece of legislation. But before talking about regulating tech, I can’t but point out that migration at the scale of what we currently experience in the European Union is nothing in comparison with what other regions already see. And neither does it compare to what we have to expect in the next ten years: The EU’s current investment in border tech is a form of maladaptation to a growing crisis. It does no justice to our responsibility to provide humanitarian aid to people suffering the consequences of the climate emergency and the Global North’s economic activity.

Technology is not the answer to migration!

“By 2030, about 250 million people may experience high water stress in Africa, with up to 700 million people displaced as a result.” (Pörtner et al., 2022)

As we learn from the latest IPCC WG2-AR6 report, “violent conflict and, separately, migration patterns, in the near-term will be driven by socio-economic conditions and governance more than by climate change (medium confidence).” (Pörtner et al., 2022) Yet, climate change exacerbates the causes of violent conflict by making these causes – for example the scarcity of basic resources including food and water – much more likely. Burke et al. study the correlation between climate and conflict. They conclude that every 1-standard-deviation increase in temperature increases the risk of intergroup conflict by 11.3% (Burke, Hsiang, & Miguel, 2015). The extreme heat waves, floods and droughts that we currently experience are already 3σ and 4σ events (Hansen, Sato, & Ruedy, 2012; Robinson, Lehmann, Barriopedro, Rahmstorf, & Coumou, 2021). With that in mind we come back to the IPCC WG2-AR6 report: “At higher global warming levels, impacts of weather and climate extremes, particularly drought, by increasing vulnerability will increasingly affect violent intrastate conflict (medium confidence).”

Most affected by climate change (“MAPA” – most affected people and areas) are those countries, communities and people that have historically been colonised and that now suffer severe environmental consequences. When talking about regions, this includes the Global South in general, and Africa in particular. “By 2030, about 250 million people may experience high water stress in Africa, with up to 700 million people displaced as a result. In sub-Saharan Africa, floods are expected to displace an2 average of 2.7 million people in any given year in the future.” (Pörtner et al., 2022)

Number of refugees compared to total population (Source:
Number of refugees compared to total population (Source:

Before the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU was home to about 2.5 million refugees. In other words, only 0.6% of the EU population are refugees. In comparison, 12.6% of the population of Lebanon, or 4.4% of that of Turkey are refugees. Yet, the EU’s investment in technology for migration management and deterrence is extraordinary. Extraordinary is also how ineffective all this technology will be when faced with the rapidly growing influx of people displaced from those regions most affected by climate change seeking shelter in Europe – on top of intra-EU displacement due to floods and droughts. Under these predictions, the EU must invest in strategies to welcome and integrate large numbers of people, possibly at a scale that is a tenfold or hundredfold of what we have seen in 2015/2016. We need safe passages for people on the move, immediate availability of humanitarian aid, simplified access to asylum procedures and regularisation, and provisions to foster self-reliance and self-governance of refugee community, but also rapidly integrating these newcomers in political decision making.

Drones and iris scans, AI and super-surveillance, will not stop the influx of people in search of food, water, and shelter. Very likely, these technologies will turn out to be case of systematic maladaptation: A substantial waste of resources, only forcing people to take more risky routes to Europe, while our historic and humanitarian obligation can only be to do the utmost possible to help.

Now back to the AI Act.

On the ‘sharp-edge’ of innovation

Whilst the uptake of AI is promoted as a policy goal by EU institutions, for marginalised communities, and in particular for migrants and people on the move, AI technologies fit into a wider system of over-surveillance, discrimination and violence. As highlighted by Petra Molnar in Technological Testing Grounds: Migration Management Experiments and Reflections from the Ground Up, AI systems are increasingly controlling migration and affecting millions of people on the move. More and more ‘innovation’ means a ‘human laboratory’ of tech experiments. People in already dangerous, vulnerable situations are the subjects.

How do these systems affect people? In migration management, AI is used to make predictions, assessments and evaluations about people in the context of their migration claims. Of particular concern is the use of AI to assess whether people on the move present a ‘risk’ of illegal activity or security threats. AI systems in this space are inherently discriminatory, pre-judging people on the basis of factors outside of their control. Along with AI lie detectors, polygraphs and emotion recognition, we see how AI is being used and developed within a broader framework of racialised suspicion against migrants.

“We are Black and the border guards hate us. Their computers hate us too.” (Molnar, 2020)

Not only can AI systems present these severe harms to people on the move in individual ways, they form part of a broader surveillance eco-system increasingly developed at and within Europe’s borders. Increasingly, racialised people and migrants are over-surveilled, targeted, detained and criminalised through EU and national policies. Technological systems form part of those infrastructures of control.

Specifically, many AI systems are being tested and deployed on a structural level to shape the way governments and institutions respond to migration. This includes AI for generalised surveillance at the border, including ‘heterogeneous robot systems’ at coastal areas, and predictive analytic systems to forecast migration trends. There is a significant concern that predictive analytics will be used to facilitate push-backs, pull-backs and other ways to prevent people exercising their right to seek asylum. This concern is especially valid in a climate of ever-increasing criminalisation of migration, and also of human rights defenders helping migrants. Whilst these systems don’t always make decisions directly about people, they vastly affect the experience of borders and the migration process, shifting even further toward surveillance, control, and violence throughout the journey.

Regulating Migration Technology: What has happened so far?

In April 2021, the European Commission launched its legislative proposal to regulate AI in the European Union. The proposal, whilst categorising some uses of AI in migration control as ‘high-risk’, fails to address how AI systems exacerbate violence and discrimination against people on the move in migration processes and at borders.

Crucially, the proposal does not prohibit some of the sharpest and most harmful uses of AI in migration control, despite the significant power imbalance that these systems exacerbate. The proposal also includes a carve-out for AI systems that form part of large scale EU IT systems, such as EURODAC. This is a harmful development meaning that the EU itself will largely not be scrutinised for its use of AI in the context of its migration databases.

In many ways, these minimal technical checks required of (a limited set of) high-risk systems in migration control could be seen as enabling, rather than providing meaningful safeguards for people subject to these opaque, discriminatory, surveillance systems.

The proposal does not at all include reference to predictive analytic systems in the migration context, nor the generalised surveillance technologies at borders, in particular those that do not make decisions about, or identify, natural persons. Therefore, systems that pose harm in the migration context in more systemic ways seem to have been completely overlooked.

In its first steps to amend the proposal, the IMCO-LIBE committee did not make any specific amendments in the migration field. There are major steps to be taken to improve this from a fundamental rights perspective.

Amendments: How can the EU AI act better protect people on the move?

Civil society have been working to develop amendments to the AI act to better protect against these harms in the migration context. As highlighted generally, EU institutions still have a long way to go to make the AI act a vehicle for genuine protection of peoples’ fundamental rights, especially for marginalised groups.

The AI act must be updated in three main ways to address AI-related harms in the migration context:

  1. Update the AI act’s prohibited AI practices (Article 5) to include ‘unacceptable uses’ of AI systems in the context of migration. This should include prohibitions on: AI based individual risk assessment and profiling systems in the migration contexts drawing on personal and sensitive data; AI polygraphs in the migration context; predictive analytic systems when used to interdict, curtail and prevent migration; and a full prohibition on remote biometric identification and categorisation in public spaces, including in border and migration control settings.
  2. Include within ‘high-risk’ use cases AI systems in migration control that require clear oversight and accountability measures, including: all other AI-based risk assessments; predictive analytic systems used in migration, asylum and border control management; biometric identification systems; and AI systems used for monitoring and surveillance in border control.
  3. Amend Article 83 to ensure AI as part of large-scale EU IT databases are within the scope of the AI Act and that the necessary safeguards apply for uses of AI in the EU migration context.


The amendment recommendations on AI and migration were developed in coalition, reflecting the broad scope of harms and disciplines this issue covers. Special thanks to Petra Molnar, Access Now, the Platform for International Cooperation for Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), Statewatch, Migration and Technology Monitor, European Disability Forum, Privacy International, Jan Tobias Muehlberg (KU Leuven), and the European Centre for non-profit Law (ECNL).


  1. Pörtner, H. O., Roberts, D. C., Adams, H., Adler, C., Aldunce, P., Ali, E., Begum, R. A., et al. (2022). “Climate change 2022: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.” Retrieved from
  2. Robinson, A., Lehmann, J., Barriopedro, D., Rahmstorf, S., & Coumou, D. (2021). “Increasing heat and rainfall extremes now far outside the historical climate.” npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, 4(1), 45. doi:10.1038/s41612-021-00202-w
  3. Molnar, P. (2020, November). “Technological Testing Grounds: Migration Management Experiments and Reflections from the Ground Up.” Retrieved from
  4. Burke, M., Hsiang, S. M., & Miguel, E. (2015). “Climate and Conflict.” Annual Review of Economics, 7(1), 577–617. doi:10.1146/annurev-economics-080614-115430
  5. Hansen, J., Sato, M., & Ruedy, R. (2012). “Perception of climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(37). doi:10.1073/pnas.1205276109

Last modified: 2022-05-09 22:20:35 +0200

  1. Title image: “Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece. Volunteers (life rescue team - with yellow-red clothes) from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms help the refugees.” 2015, Georgios Giannopoulos, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia