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Politics

Fences, Drones, Night Vision Cameras: Greece’s Refugee Camps Life

December 27, 2021

Greece’s New Democracy government is pulling out all the stops in a bid to to keep out refugees and migrants who have been coming since 2015, extending a wall on the Turkish border and employing drones and thermal cameras to scout for them from the sky and in the dark – and in detention camps.

The Migration and Asylum Ministry, which is dealing with up to 100,000 people seeking sanctuary after coming from Turkey – where they first went fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands – has a new centralized surveillance headquarters to monitor them in camps.

In a feature, Al Jazeera noted the extent to which the government, which has denied accusations from activists, human rights groups and Turkey of pushing back refugees and migrants across the border and sea, has gone.

Greece is using the high-tech Centaur surveillance system at some 40 camps on islands and the mainland that has cameras and motion sensors and uses algorithms to automatically predict and flag threats such as the presence of guns, unauthorized vehicles, or unusual visits into restricted areas.

The system subsequently alerts police the fire brigade, and private security working in the camps while from a central headquarters high-security room operators let loose drones and and instruct officers stationed at the camp to rush to the location of the reported threat, the news site said.

“We use technology to prevent violence, to prevent events like we had in Moria – the arson of the camp. Because safety is critical for everyone,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told Al Jazeera.

That was in reference to the former notorious refugee detention center on the island of Lesbos that a few occupants incensed about COVID-19 health restrictions burned down.

Many of the former detainees are now being held at a replacement tent city as the government is opening new facilities on five islands near the coast of Turkey, which is still letting human traffickers keep sending more in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

One of the first new high-tech centers is on the island of Kos and is connected to Centaur as Greece has set up the “closed” facilities to keep better track of refugees waiting two years or more for asylum applications to be processed.

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Nearly 40 cameras are being installed in each camp, which can be operated from the control room in Athens. There will also be thermal cameras, drones, and other technology – including augmented reality glasses, which will be distributed to police and private security personnel.

“This was not to monitor and invade the privacy of the people (in the camps,)” said Anastasios Salis, the ministry’s Head of Information and Communications Technology, one of the architects of Centaur. “You’re not monitoring them. You’re trying to prevent bad things from happening.”

Critics and civil society groups decry the stepped-up security as well as conditions in the camps that, while improved, still see people treated like inmates and not asylum seekers, they said.

“This fits a broader trend of the EU pouring public money into dystopian and experimental surveillance projects, which treat human beings as lab rats,” Ella Jakubowska, Policy and Campaigns Officer at European Digital Rights (EDRi), told Al Jazeera.

“Money which could be used to help people is instead used to punish them, all while the surveillance industry makes vast profits selling false promises of magical technology that claims to fix complex structural issues,” she said.

Media reports that said Centaur will be partly financed by the EU COVID Recovery fund set off a group of European lawmakers to write to the European Commission that they’re worried about the scheme.

Homo Digitalis, a Greek digital rights advocacy group, and EDRi have requested information on what data protection assessments were carried out before the development and deployment of Centaur.

That data is required under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the groups want to know what is being collected and how long it will be held by authorities but they were ignored, the EU doing nothing about it.

The Greek Migration Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s query on whether an impact assessment was completed, and on policies regarding data retention and the processing of data related to children.

Advocates on the island of Samos told Al Jazeera they raised concerns about camp residents being adequately notified about the presence of these technologies but Salis said there are signs in the camps advising occupants.

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