Greeting asylum-seekers with drones

Five years ago I had the dubious honour of interviewing a representative from the Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang.First_UK_flight_of_Watchkeeper_UAV_MOD_45151422

After listening to this woman spout some paranoid nonsense about the police being “afraid” to enter parts of Brussels “where Muslims rule”, I asked if she had anything against me. As an Irish national, I am a foreigner in Belgium, I explained. That wasn’t a problem, she replied, because “you are probably the same religion as us”.

The disaster off the coast of Lampedusa reminded me of that bizarre and unsettling conversation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, my ancestors fled hunger and destitution in “coffin ships”, frequently dying onboard. Mass emigration is haunting Ireland once again today. Yet unlike the Africans who perished before they could reach the Italian shore, we can usually travel in safety.

Adjusting to a new life abroad is never easy. But, at least, demagogues will take kindly to us because we share the same race – or, as they prefer to call it, religion.

Sometimes, though, I am not sure if the gap between extremist parties like Vlaams Belang or Golden Dawn and more “mainstream” politicians is all that great.

Nick Griffin, a British National Party thug now sitting in the European Parliament, once provoked a furore by arguing that boats carrying migrants should be fired upon. If Griffin had been a little more nuanced, then his proposal would have differed little to official EU policy.

The immediate response of Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, to the Lampedusa disaster was to tout a new border surveillance system called Eurosur. According to Malmström, the system will help the authorities rescue boats that get into difficulty after it becomes operational in December.


Contrary to what Malmström has indicated, Eurosur is not a humanitarian initiative. Rather, its primary focus is addressing what the European Commission calls “illegal immigration” – a repulsive term as travelling from one country to another in search of a better life is not a crime.

Eurosur is partly the fruit of a €15 million scientific research project launched in 2010. Though mainly funded by the EU, the project had a heavy participation from top weapons-makers like Britain’s BAE, the Franco-German firm EADS and Spain’s Indra.

This is one of several EU-financed schemes relating to maritime surveillance. Another one, OPARUS, examined how drones can help to detect Africans or Asians trying to enter Europe. BAE, EADS and the French companies Thales and Dassault are all taking part in it. So, too, is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a maker of drones used to bomb civilians in Gaza.


I’ve challenged Malmström a couple of times about why she wants to train warplanes on some of the world’s poorest people. She has tried to fob me off by claiming the fact that drones can have violent applications is a mere coincidence.

There can be little doubt that the EU is taking an increasingly militarised approach to questions of migration and asylum.

Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, will have a significant role in overseeing Eurosur. The agency is headed by Ilkka Laitenen, a Finnish brigadier-general.

Laitenen sits on the advisory board of Security and Defence Agenda, a “think tank” reliant on funding from the arms industry. He and his staff are also in regular contact with the European Defence Agency, a body established to drum up business for this continent’s weapons-makers.

Frontex, too, has been shopping around for drones deemed suitable for tracking migrants. It is known to have invited Israeli and American drone manufacturers to display their deadly wares to its staff. The US Department of Commerce has advised the country’s arms producers to keep a close eye on Frontex as it may provide “export opportunities”.

Cecilia Malmström has rightly been critical of the Greek authorities for approving a tiny number of asylum applications and systematically refusing asylum to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Malmström supervises the work of Frontex, an agency that has helped Greece to abuse the right to asylum. In January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Greece’s detention centres for asylum-seekers were in such a dilapidated state that keeping people in them was tantamount to torture. Frontex has provided buses for transporting asylum-seekers to those centres.

It stands accused, therefore, of being a subcontractor for torture.

I couldn’t fail to notice that one of the main boasts of Britain’s Conservative Party at its latest annual conference was that it had brought immigration down. The boast should be seen against the backdrop of the wider ideological war being waged against the poor – both in Europe and further afield. Like any war, its main beneficiaries are those making the tools with which it is fought.

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  1. #1 by Dan on October 8, 2013 - 4:30 pm

    It doesn’t matter what they use to detect the ships as long as they can save them on time. But the problem is much more complex. One part of is trying to cope with all the immigrants without a common policy at EU level. From a humanitarian point of view, you cannot give asylum and expect everything to work out. There is a process of integration and this requires resources. But all this will translate into a rise of populism and extreme right in EU, etc which can give a change of policy in time. Another issue is that having illegal immigrants means a way in for terrorists but I don’t think EU is very much concerned of it. Yet, the solution is not here, but in the source countries of the immigrants. EU sends a lot of money in African countries, but I don’t think they are very helpful. Also, the EU economic strategy regarding Africa is not helpful for the African development. In plus, we have the Syrian conflict, dictatorships and civil wars, which may not be directly EU-related, but they have an impact on the immigration waves. EU should be more involved in finding real solutions with the UN or other organisations. Also, EU should cooperate more with the passage countries where the immigrants find the ships to come to EU. In any case, without a common policy at EU level regarding asylum and immigration put into practice, tragedies such as the last one, are bound to repeat sooner or later.

  2. #2 by jon livesey on October 8, 2013 - 8:44 pm

    Does Cronin actually think it’s a bad thing if European countries can detect approaching ships? I’d say that the 250 deaths this week off Italy say it would be a very good thing.

    And the rest of the deliberate confusion of the use of drones for surveillance versus drones for attack, is just Cronin doing his usual best to confuse the reader.

    If you are making an argument, making it honestly counts for something.

  3. #3 by cate on October 10, 2013 - 4:01 am

    People have been migrating all over this planet for eons and as the descendant of Irish and Scottish immigrants I am sympathetic to those who wish to come to the EU or the US for opportunity. But we must consider that eventually the capacity of both North America and Europe to absorb and provide a decent life to immigrants will diminish – there are limits. So a better solution is to be EFFECTIVE in supporting those poorer countries in creating more opportunities for their citizens as well as EFFECTIVE efforts to reduce conflict and violence which also drives migration.

    • #4 by Niels Onderbeke on October 11, 2013 - 2:26 pm

      I agree with Cate, but I would like to add that however much I sympathize with foreigners that are forced to live in surreal conditions, I also believe we should not forget that our ancestors have fought and worked hard to create the comfortable lifestyle that we can enjoy today. Until somebody stands up in those countries we feel so bad about, nothing is going to change for the better. Colonialism is not an option and so that leaves everything in the hands of the residents/nationals of those countries. I believe we cannot accept people to move to our European countries for the sole reason they are just trying to find a better place to live. As Cate said, there is only so much capacity, and my experience in my own country is that we just do not succeed in a sufficient way to harbor the immigrants that we have now already, let alone sheltering tens or hundreds of thousands more… It is my belief that we should focus on the immigrants that live in Europe already and people that face truely tremendous crimes against their human rights in their home country, and try to make these people feel welcome and at home in Europe. Imho that is already a huge task, let us start with that. Sheltering people that were able to flee bad living conditions, and leaving their fellow nationals “to rot” is not a solution. Problems in a certain country should primarely be dealt with by their own nationals. It is the only way things are ever going to get better for that particular country. Let us not forget that Europe has its own problems, and overimmigration imho is one of them. The is so much potential in immigration, but we just dump those people in ghettos, and are then surprised when patrol cars get shot at by kalashnikovs. Let us focus on a smaller group of immigrants, and please let us focus on the people that need us the most, and also the people that we need the most. In my country we need many skilled workers and at the same time there are so many jobless…

    • #5 by Carax on October 20, 2013 - 9:12 pm

      Agree with most of your points. If the West, and I’m speaking of since the 1600s, had not underdeveloped Africa, stole its natural resources and used its populations as slave labor, maybe they wouldn’t be coming in loaded boats to Europe’s shores today. However, what can one expect these poor people to do other than try and reach Europe? After all, every time America exports democracy to places like Libya, bombs, murder, and death of innocents are certain to follow after they destroy a country. People will do anything to get away from that and in some ways we, although not the perpetrators, are paying the price.

  4. #6 by Jan on October 15, 2013 - 6:51 pm

    I wonder why Ireland was so hostile to british immigrants over the centuries? And still is today in the North? It can’t be a crime to move from one country to another,can it?

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