Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Eyes in the Sky: EU Border Technology in the Mediterranean


Ahlam Chemlali
PhD Fellow at Aalborg University and Danish Institute for International Studies
Mikkel Nørregaard Jørgensen


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Ahlam Chemlali and Mikkel Nørregaard Jørgensen. Ahlam Chemlali is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Migration and Global Order, DIIS – Danish Institute for International Studies and Department of Politics and Society, University of Aalborg. Mikkel Nørregaard Jørgensen is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Aesthetics and Culture, University of Aarhus. 

Also available in Danish at: https://www.eftertrykket.dk/2023/06/26/eus-oejne-over-havet-ny-graenseteknologi-skubber-til-vores-graenser/ 



Amid the Mediterranean tragedies, the battle over the kinds of borders we want and how borders exercise power, takes center stage. In her latest collection of poems, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head from 2022, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes in the poem “Assimilation”:  

At each and every checkpoint the refugee is asked  are you human?  The refugee is sure it’s still human but worries that overnight, while it slept, there  may have been a change in classification.


With this quote, Shire hits the core of the reality faced by people fleeing. Here, crossing borders is experienced as a battle to render visible humanity, not just a category. Categories can shift overnight depending on changing political winds, as also highlighted by migration researcher Nicholas De Genova.  

Shire’s poem reminds us of the vulnerability of such categories and their significance for individuals who risk their lives to reach the checkpoint and border crossing. It points to the simple explanation of what a border is. Borders are places that sustain the given agenda of inclusion and exclusion.  

What are the circumstances shaping the primary border power today and how are efforts being made to challenge the circumstances? 

An example can be found in a handover ceremony that took place on February 6th 2023. Here the EU handed over the first of five new “search and rescue” vessels to the Libyan coast guard. The handover was part of a process in which the EU provides resources to North African partner countries to strengthen local efforts aimed at stopping so-called illegal migration.  

The handover reflects a tendency in the implementation of border control at the borders of Europe, a tendency that builds on externalisation and outsourcing to third countries, which displaces the borders, while altering the consequences for those attempting to cross them. These consequences require scrutiny. 

photo of a drone in the air

Demarcation of air space 

To delve into the paradigm shift in border control, we turn our attention to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report examines the use of drones by Frontex and the consequences of their shift in focus from maritime control to the surveillance tower of the cockpit. The report serves as an exposure of Frontex’ strategy. This entails using drones to monitor migration activities in the Mediterranean and passing on this information to the Libyan coast guard, enabling them to intercept migrants and return them to Libya. 

In this way, the responsibility of border control is moved away from the coasts of Europe. Simultaneously, the risk of fleeing across the Mediterranean increases as contact with ships is minimized and the rescue rate decreases. 

In the introductory quote of the report, one of the report’s sources, ‘Abu Laila’, provides an eyewitness account:  

About half an hour after we left…we heard a drone over our head…it made a clear sound, Wzzzz Wzzzz … We were all afraid. Silence for the next several hours. Around noon … we saw the drone … it stayed there about five minutes, did a circle or two … Two hours later … a boat appeared: it was the Libyans.  

The sound of the drone is the first meeting with the border to Europe, for the boat’s passengers. The drone’s gaze represents an extension of Europe’s border strategy and demonstrates that borders can be stretched as needed. In this new paradigm, the border remains invisible, and migrants remain invisible to the European asylum system as they never reach the shores of Europe. 

The retreat to the air can be understood as part of a trend in European border control. Houtum and Lacy suggest that the EU’s border system operates with three types of borders: pre-borders; physical borders; and finally, the post-border. The first refers to how the European visa system filters out individuals before they reach the European borders. The second border refers to physical border controls. The last border refers to the asylum system. 

However, if we compare van Houtum and Lacy’s tripartition with the HRW report, a discrepancy appears. With the introduction of drones, the physical border expands to overlap with both the pre-border and the post-border, creating a kind of feedback loop between the two. There is a displacement in the question of visibility when the physical border turns into elusive drones, and the border control is carried out by the Libyan and Tunisian coast guards. The pre-border and post-border blend together. 

The ethics of border technology 

The withdrawal of the EU’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean comes in the wake of numerous cases involving Frontex’s violation of a number of human rights. However, this withdrawal is just that, a maritime withdrawal. The EU is still heavily present in the southern border region, now not as much on and in the Mediterranean, but rather above it. 

The splitting of the border into two parts, with the land segment being inflexible, and the air segment representing the more flexible and efficient control, raises new questions. As border technology researcher Petra Molnar writes, technology is often implemented with the promise of fairer control, although in some cases that may be true, the technology also has a downside, as it often ends up reinforcing existing power relations. This has also been the case in several cases involving biometric technology and migration control, where black and brown individuals have been misidentified or wrongly detained.  

Technological advancements pose new demands on all of us. The EU’s outsourcing of border control to militias and security services results in abuses, that are supported by EU’s security budgets. It is a displacement of borders and an evasion of responsibility. As citizens and researchers, we must ask ourselves: Where do we draw the line? Because even though it may not be us operating the wall, we are the ones paying for it, and as a minimum, we should demand that migrants do not risk torture, violence, and exploitation funded by our tax money. 


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Chemlali and M. Jørgensen. (2024) Eyes in the Sky: EU Border Technology in the Mediterranean . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/01/eyes-sky-eu-border-technology-mediterranean. Accessed on: 17/04/2024


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