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‘They can see us in the dark’: migrants grapple with hi-tech fortress EU | Migration

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Khaled has been playing “the game” for a year now. A former law student, he left Afghanistan in 2018, driven by precarious economic circumstances and fear for his security, as the Taliban were increasingly targeting Kabul.

But when he reached Europe, he realised the chances at winning the game were stacked against him. Getting to Europe’s borders was easy compared with actually crossing into the EU, he says, and there were more than physical obstacles preventing him from getting to Germany, where his uncle and girlfriend live.

On a cold December evening in the Serbian village of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, where he had spent a month squatting in an abandoned farm building, he and six other Afghan asylum seekers were having dinner together – a raw onion and a loaf of bread they passed around – their faces lit up by the glow of a fire.

The previous night, they had all had another go at “the game” – the name migrants give to crossing attempts. But almost immediately the Hungarian border police stopped them and pushed them back into Serbia. They believe the speed of the response can be explained by the use of thermal cameras and surveillance drones, which they had seen during previous attempts to cross.

“They can see us in the dark – you just walk, and they find you,” said Khaled, adding that drones had been seen flying over their squat. “Sometimes they send them in this area to watch who is here.”

Migrants in Serbian village of Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border squatting in an abandoned farm building, January 2021.
Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building in the Serbian village of Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border, January 2021. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

Drones, thermal-vision cameras and devices that can detect a heartbeat are among the new technological tools being increasingly used by European police to stop migrants from crossing borders, or to push them back when they do.

The often violent removal of migrants without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is illegal under EU law, which obliges authorities to process asylum requests whether or not migrants possess identification documents or entered the country legally.

“Routes are getting harder and harder to navigate. Corridors [in the Balkans are] really intensively surveyed by these technologies,” says Simon Campbell, field coordinator for the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a migrant rights group in the region.

Migrant in Serbian village of Horgoš
A refugee in the Serbian village of Horgoš last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

The militarisation of Europe’s borders has been increasing steadily since 2015, when the influx of migrants reached its peak. A populist turn in politics and fear whipped up around the issue have fuelled the use of new technologies. The EU has invested in fortifying borders, earmarking €34.9bn (£30bn) in funding for border and migration management for the 2021-27 budget, while sidelining the creation of safe passages and fair asylum processes.

Osman, a Syrian refugee now living in Serbia, crossed several borders in the southern Balkans in 2014. “At the time, I didn’t see any type of technology,” he says, “but now there’s drones, thermal cameras and all sorts of other stuff.”

When the Hungarian police caught him trying to cross the Serbian border before the pandemic hit last year, they boasted about the equipment they used – including what Osman recalls as “a huge drone with a big camera”. He says they told him: “We are watching you everywhere.”

Upgrading of surveillance technology, as witnessed by Khaled and Osman, has coincided with increased funding for Frontex – the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency. Between 2005 and 2016, Frontex’s budget grew from €6.3m to €238.7m, and it now stands at €420.6m. Technology at the EU’s Balkan borders have been largely funded with EU money, with Frontex providing operational support.

Between 2014 and 2017, with EU funding, Croatia bought 13 thermal-imaging devices for €117,338 that can detect people more than a mile away and vehicles from two miles away.

In 2019, the Croatian interior ministry acquired four eRIS-III long-range drones for €2.3m. They identify people up to six miles away in daylight and just under two miles in darkness, they fly at 80mph and climb to an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,400ft), while transmitting real-time data. Croatia has infrared cameras that can detect people at up to six miles away and equipment that picks upheartbeats.

Border patrol at Hungary-Serbia border
A Hungarian police and military patrol near the border crossing between Röszke, Hungary, and Horgoš, Serbia, last month. Photograph: Zoltán Gergely Kelemen/EPA

Romania now has heartbeat detection devices, alongside 117 thermo-vision cameras. Last spring, it added 24 vehicles with thermo-vision capabilities to its border security force at a cost of more than €13m.

Hungary’s investment in migration-management technology is shielded from public scrutiny by a 2017 legal amendment but its lack of transparency and practice of pushing migrants back have been criticised by other EU nations and the European court of justice, leading to Frontex suspending operations in Hungary in January.

It means migrants can no longer use the cover of darkness for their crossing attempts. Around the fire in Horgoš, Khaled and his fellow asylum-seekers decide to try crossing instead in the early morning, when they believe thermal cameras are less effective.

Migrants in Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border
Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building close to the Hungarian border last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

A 2021 report by BVMN claims that enhanced border control technologies have led to increased violence as police in the Balkans weaponise new equipment against people on the move. Technology used in pushing back migrants has “contributed to the ease with which racist and repressive procedures are carried out”, the report says.

BVMN highlighted the 2019 case of an 18-year-old Algerian who reported being beaten and strangled with his own shirt by police while attempting a night crossing from Bosnia to Croatia. “You cannot cross the border during the night because when the police catch you in the night, they beat you a lot. They break you,” says the teenager, who reported seeing surveillance drones.

Ali, 19, an Iranian asylum-seeker who lives in a migrant camp in Belgrade, says that the Croatian and Romanian police have been violent and ignored his appeals for asylum during his crossing attempts. “When they catch us, they don’t respect us, they insult us, they beat us,” says Ali. “We said ‘we want asylum’, but they weren’t listening.”

BVMN’s website archives hundreds of reports of violence. In February last year, eight Romanian border officers beat two Iraqi families with batons, administering electric shocks to two men, one of whom was holding his 11-month-old child. They stole their money and destroyed their phones, before taking them back to Serbia, blasting ice-cold air in the police van until they reached their destination.

“There’s been some very, very severe beatings lately,” says Campbell. “Since the spring of 2018, there has been excessive use of firearms, beatings with batons, Tasers and knives.”

Responding to questions via email, Frontex denies any link between its increased funding of new technologies and the violent pushbacks in the Balkans. It attributes the rise in reports to other factors, such as increased illegal migration and the proliferation of mobile phones making it easier to record incidents.

Hungarian police guard the closed “Horgos 2” border crossing into Hungary
Hungarian police guard a border crossing with Serbia near the village of Röszke last year. Photograph: Darko Vojinović/AP

Petra Molnar, associate director of Refugee Law Lab, believes the over-emphasis on technologies can alienate and dehumanise migrants.

“There’s this alluring solution to really complex problems,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to sell a bunch of drones or a lot of automated technology, instead of dealing with the drivers that force people to migrate … or making the process more humane.”

Despite the increasingly sophisticated technologies that have been preventing them from crossing Europe’s borders, Khaled and his friends from the squat managed to cross into Hungary in late December. He is living in a camp in Germany and has begun the process of applying for asylum.

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SSD belonging to Euro-cloud Scaleway was stolen from back of a truck, then turned up on YouTube • The Register

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In brief Deepmind and the European Bioinformatics Institute released a database of more than 350,000 3D protein structures predicted by the biz’s AI model AlphaFold.

That data covers the 20,000 or so proteins made in the human body, and is available for anyone to study. The proteomes of 20 other organisms, from Zebrafish to E.coli bacteria, are also in there, too, and hundreds of millions of more structures will be added over time, we’re told.

“In the hands of scientists around the world, this new protein almanac will enable and accelerate research that will advance our understanding of these building blocks of life,” said DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis. He hopes that it will be a valuable resource that will be used in the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of diseases.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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