Artificial intelligence in migration management: What are the key elements that should be included by the EU in the new AI legal framework?

By Fulya Kocukoglu
Human Rights Analyst

In February 2020, the new strategic plan on the AI[1] (White Paper) and the European Data Strategy[2] was published by the European Commission. This strategy paper aimed at defining new limits against the digital technologies which could potentially breach fundamental rights, such as privacy rights and gender-based or other kinds of discrimination.

Nevertheless, by the end of 2020, the EU set back from its agenda and did not ban the facial recognition tools. Last month, civil society organisations across Europe raised their concerns about the AI deployments in our lives. More than 50 organisations in Europe sent a letter addressing the European Commission, to urge the Commission to take the necessary actions and define the regulatory limits to prevent human rights violations related to AI-based technologies.[3] Unfortunately, the letter was paid too little attention from the media. The joint declaration stated several issues regarding human rights violations that have arisen from the biometric mass surveillance, the systems for migration management, including the border surveillance and the algorithmic tools used in the criminal justice system. The new legislative proposal set to be released, soon, in the first quarter of 2021.

From this point of view, in this article, I would like to give examples of the AI systems used in migration management, by international organisations and the EU. The civil societies across Europe are concerned also about these systems used for migration management and complain about the vulnerability of people fleeing from conflict and the EU’s ignorance.

AI and Migration Management

The world has been going through an immense technological transformation which affects every aspect of our lives. Due to its unprecedented nature and speed, this in-depth transformation is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution[4] (4IR) or Industry 4.0. It might even change the way we perceive being human.[5] Actively evolving, the 4IR has transformed almost every industry and has influenced the entire systems of production, management and governance. The migration field is one of these areas in which AI is becoming a vital tool for policymakers.

Migration Forecasting Systems

It is recorded in the 2020 World Migration Report[6] that around 275 million people were internationally displaced, primarily, due to conflict, extreme violence and increasing economic and political instability. Besides that, environmental and climate crises have caused large-scale displacement, especially after 2018.

Due to the rise of global mass migration, the preparedness for contemporary migration challenges and strengthen governmental capacity through effective policymaking and cooperation have become a priority. 4IR has transformed the migration management techniques and policymakers started building migration policies through big data collection and AI and machine-learning algorithm tools. For example, the early warning systems are implemented to track information both through quantitative and qualitative data. They can be used for the actual flows while analysing the push factors to predict the displacement – even before the departure of the migrant.[7]

IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) was launched in 2004 to monitor the main migration routes. Despite the success in gathering relevant information, the newly emerging migration routes and smuggling networks posed difficulties in the monitoring process.[8] The success of these algorithm tools to monitor migration flows relies on the quality of data, and since migration is already a complex issue with the root causes of displacement, even with good data, modelling individuals’ movement, sometimes, is not easy to produce reliable outcome prediction. It may also create privacy concerns. For example, in May 2020, the IOM created a new monitoring system on migration and human mobility during the crises through information collected from satellite earth information technologies, mobile phone data and social media accounts.[9]

The EU launched the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) in 2015 to enhance the coordination on decision-making for major crises, including the terrorism-related issues and migration by increased information sharing between the EU institutions, the affected Member States and other institutions.[10] It would not be wrong to say that the September 11 attacks have impacted the understanding of security. In the aftermath of the attacks, states decided to take necessary actions against global terrorism by creating new security policies. In this sense, surveillance technologies have gained legitimacy to ensure international peace and security. Likewise, the migration phenomenon has become more related to the concept of securitisation.[11] 

Biometric Immigration Control Systems

It is well-known that biometric data collection is not intrinsic to the migration field. We give our biometric information when crossing international borders, although privacy questions come to mind. However, we are not familiar with the use of surveillance tools to track migrants.

The EU has several tools to monitor migrants. It uses EURODAC, Asylum Fingerprint Database for identifying or tracking individuals for immigration enforcement purposes. This database stores and processes the digitalised fingerprints of asylum seekers and irregular migrants, as well as the data of the application and the gender information. By this means, the first country of entry into the EU is in charge of examining the asylum application.

Facial recognition is also a widely used system when it comes to biometric identification. In December 2020, EU-LISA[12] signed a new contract for the biometric database[13] which stores both the EU and non-EU citizens’ fingerprints and facial images. The collected information is used for identity checking during visa applications and when a third-country national crosses the external Schengen border.

Germany has introduced a new programme which contains biometric images which allow automatic facial recognition, name transliteration which can convert from Arabic to the Roman alphabet, a voice recorder which detects the dialect used by the applicant and the mobile data including location information.[14] Moreover, the division for the asylum applications collaborates with the Counter-Terrorism Centre. This asylum procedure evokes the statement of UN Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, Ms Tendayi Achiume on the biometric surveillance technologies. In her speech, she condemned the use of digital technologies, especially the tools used for border management in the name of humanitarian aid, which is usually political and regularly breach human rights.[15]

Drone Technology for Border Surveillance

Especially in the last decade, the migration and humanitarian aid field has seen a rapid increase in the projects using the latest air surveillance technologies to secure the external borders of the EU. As mentioned in the previous part, the migration policy is securitised, especially in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and migration has been perceived as an external threat to the EU’s internal security. Therefore, border surveillance is called prevention for security threats, and the new security policy has given legitimacy to the deployment of the most recent and efficient technological tools.[16] For some scholars, this was caused by the symbolisation of the migration concept with the security threat and danger, which could disrupt the European sense of stability and political, cultural and social cohesion.[17] In the name of security, a ‘Fortress Europe’[18] has been constructed with the latest surveillance technologies by air, land and sea.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and the EU Member States have been using the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) since 2013 to exchange information between the EU Member States. They introduced drone surveillance in 2018 to integrate the national cooperation systems and database of the Member States and to conduct effective operations.[19] However, the primary objective was to detect illegal entries instead of rescuing lives. Frontex has been widely criticised and accused of investing in maritime surveillance using drones to monitor migrants from distance and evading their liability to people in danger.[20]


The 4IR has created new spheres in which technology is inextricably linked with the society and has invaded our daily lives with the new terms, such as the AI, robotics, nanotechnology, blockchain, big data analysis and so forth. This fast digitalisation model has opened up new opportunities, however, the new risks posed by this model should be considered by lawmakers.

Since AI use in the migration field is less known, in this article, based on the issues raised by the European civil societies, I focused on the examples of AI-based technologies deployed in migration management. Such examples can be multiplied and analysed in detail. The main idea is that the migration tracking does not start when entering a state’s territory but even before entering and sometimes before leaving the mainland. To forecast migration movements, AI and machine-learning-based algorithms are deployed. Drones are used for border surveillance. After reaching the border of the destination country, algorithmic mechanisms are deployed for identity checks. Migrants are registered with their biometric data and algorithmic tools are used later during the asylum applications and the resettlement of migrants.

The new regulatory framework should consider the points raised by the European civil society organisations and contain specific legal control systems for the use of biometric identity tools, predictive policing applications, and the AI-based tools related to border surveillance activities. With the new legislative framework, we will see if Europe can address the risks created by AI-based technologies.


[1]  ‘White Paper: On Artificial Intelligence – A European Approach to Excellence and Trust’ (Brussels: European Commission, 19 February 2020),

[2] ‘A European Strategy for Data’ (Brussels: European Commission, 19 February 2020),

[3] ‘Civil Society Calls for AI Red Lines in the European Union’s Artificial Intelligence Proposal’, European Digital Rights (EDRi), 12 January 2021,

[4]  Klaus Schwab, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond’, World Economic Forum, 14 January 2016,

[5] Bernard Marr, ‘The 4th Industrial Revolution Is Here – Are You Ready?’, Forbes, 13 August 2018,

[6]‘World Migration Report 2020’ (International Organisation for Migration, 2019),

[7] ‘Can We Anticipate Future Migration Flows?’, OECD, May 2018,

[8] ‘Can We Anticipate Future Migration Flows?’

[9] ‘New IOM Data Innovation Directory Provides Insight on Migration and Mobility in Times of Crisis’, IOM, 22 May 2020,

[10] ‘The EU Integrated Political Crisis Response-IPCR-Arrangements in Brief’ (Council of the European Union, 2016),

[11] João Estevens, ‘Migration Crisis in the EU: Developing a Framework for Analysis of National Security and Defence Strategies’, Comparative Migration Studies 6, no. 28 (2018),

[12]  The European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice

[13] Samuel Stolton, ‘EU Signs Contract for Large-Scale Biometric Database to Protect Borders’, Euractiv, 5 June 2020,

[14] ‘The Personal Interview’, Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 2018,

[15] Katy Fallon, ‘UN Warns of Impact of Smart Borders on Refugees: “Data Collection Isn’t Apolitical”’, 11 November 2020,

[16] Luisa Marin, ‘Deploying Drones in Policing Southern European Borders: Constraints and Challenges for Data Protection and Human Rights’, in Drones and Unmanned Aerial Systems, 2015, 102,

[17] Alessandra Buonfino, ‘Between Unity and Plurality: The Politicization and Securitization of the Discourse of Immigration in Europe’, New Political Science 26, no. 1 (4 August 2006): 23–49,

[18] ‘Introduction to Fortress Europe: Media, Migration and Borders’, Networking Knowledge 9, no. 4 (24 May 2016): 23,

[19] Joerg Nowak, ‘Drone Surveillance Operations in the Mediterranean: The Central Role of the Portuguese Economy and State in EU Border Control’, Border Criminologies (blog), 26 February 2019,

[20] Kaamil Ahmed, ‘EU Accused of Abandoning Migrants to the Sea with Shift to Drone Surveillance’, The Guardian, 28 October 2020,

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