Technology and the EU's Migrant Crisis

There is little doubt that the migrant influx from the Middle East is the most important economic, social, and politically contentious issue for the European Union (EU) since the birth of its euro. The scale and financial impact of the migrant crisis is far above that of the 2010 EU financial crisis given the economic and social costs that the European countries are currently incurring and will incur for decades to come.

Technology is aiding EU policy-making and assisting individual member states in their medical relief efforts, security, and documentation of immigrant refugees. It has provided government agencies better data analytics for monitoring the severity of the EU immigration crisis by providing enhanced methods to track the immigration crisis. This is a crucial first step towards restoring equity in burden-sharing among member states, easing political tensions and, in time, will result in a stronger EU.

This is important because the current European migrant refugee crisis is an asymmetric shock to the EU. Individual member states are experiencing the crisis in different ways, making this an enormous political dilemma for the EU. Countries such as Greece and Italy are at the forefront of the migration because of their geographical proximity to the Middle East. Meanwhile, countries such as Germany and Sweden are migrant destination endpoints because of their generous social welfare programs and other opportunities. Hungary, Austria and Western Balkans are simply migrant transit pathways while Ireland, Portugal, Romania and Spain have escaped the refugee crisis almost altogether.

The asymmetric nature of this crisis, coupled with the EU’s slow, inadequate response, and execution of a comprehensive immigration policy, has weakened EU policy-making and strained inter-EU relations. For example, Brussels’ efforts for more equitable burden-sharing among member states have not worked. This is in part due to the inability to comprehend the scale and complexity of the crisis.

The real solution to this immense crisis requires collaboration between the public-private sectors. EU governments recognize this, and are actively reaching out to private technology firms for assistance on refugee-tracking systems, apps for biometrics, European ID cards and smart cards to manage migrants as they cross borders. For example, the EU border agency, Frontex, has an open call to private technology firms (such as 3M, Securiport LLC, Unisys, Thales, Crossmatch, etc.) asking for designs for smartphone apps and databases to track and manage refugees arriving in Europe. Currently the EU member countries use Eurodac that tracks migrant movement within the EU via fingerprinting. This is used to prevent migrants from claiming asylum in more than one EU nation.

The use of these technologies has also been a catalyst for criticism of the EU. Some governments are accused of using digital innovation to evade their moral and legal obligations to the refugees. Clearly, digital technologies, communication networks, and data analytics have the capability to ease tensions and facilitate coordination and cooperation among EU nations if the governments utilize these technologies for purposes other than national security. Governments could use their tech sectors as a partner for migrant job creation.

A fair number of countries in the past have used technology sector jobs to manage an influx of educated immigrant refugees. Israel did this for the post-Berlin Wall Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Other countries have used technology to draw global talent. Chile’s Chilecon Valley hub is an example of how to lure immigrant entrepreneurs using investments and work visas. It is worth noting that technology has also aided the traffickers. An example of this is the use of Arabic-language Facebook groups, such as, How to immigrate to Europe and “Smuggling into the E.U.”

In truth, this is not only an EU policy issue. The immigration stems not only from Syria, but also a myriad of other countries ranging from Afghanistan to Somalia. These widespread points of origin for migrants necessitate coordination between the EU and numerous governments and agencies to process migrants. Thus this is a global problem that requires a global solution, further underscoring the importance of the role of technology.

Technology has revolutionized the ways international aid agencies and refugees communicate and interact. The migrant and international aid agencies engagement is now active instead of being a passive one-way information flow in which aid agencies simply broadcasted information to refugees.

Technology has shattered the paradigm of aid provision and has expanded it well beyond food, water, shelter, and medicine. For example, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is now disseminating thousands of SIM cards and solar lanterns to charge cellphones of Syrian refugees. They are providing digital information for refugee location centers and real-time data on critical services and equipment deployment. Global data – known as multi-center ingest – technology is precise and has the capability to provide real-time updates to alert aid agencies with “just-in-time” aid supply chains. The technologies stemming from the EU immigrant refugee crisis has provided relief agencies with more precise migrant movements, allowing for a more effective and timely response.

Perhaps even more importantly, the modern toolkit of migrants includes posting real-time updates on routes, transportation, locations to rest, prices of goods and services, border patrol activities, and detentions/arrests. Technology allows the migrant refugees the critical communication with family and friends. Technology continues to be one of the key crucial elements throughout the supply chain of the mitigation process. Digital technology complements governments’ efforts in managing an immigration crisis of this size and scale. Digital technology works from the ground up, whereas government policy is delivered top-down. Technology is clearly assisting EU member nations in managing an explosive political, social, and economic time bomb. Technology, if used appropriately, can be an essential instrument in ameliorating the ongoing EU migrant crisis.

Dr. Rehman received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University. She is a Senior Research Fulbright Scholar and is the GW Director of the EU Research Center. She also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the International Trade and Finance Association.

Prior to teaching at GW, Dr. Rehman was a foreign exchange and money market trader in Bahrain. She is also a Senior Partner at the International Consultants Group which specializes in Middle East financial sector development and investment management. In 1997, she received a Senior Research Fulbright award to conduct a comprehensive study of South Asia-Pakistan economic and financial development. In 2001, she received the GW International Business Teaching Award and the GW Graduate Teaching Award. In 1998, she received the GW Bender Teaching Award and the First Annual Outstanding GW University Woman of the Year Award.

In 2006, Dr. Rehman was invited to speak at the Douglas Y. Thomas Visiting Economist Series at Bradley University and Caterpillar Inc. on "Oil and Arms: A Disastrous Environment for Economic Growth in the Middle East." The Visiting Economist Series has featured seminars by such distinguished economists as Milton Friedman, Robert Barro, Deidre McCloskey, James Buchanan, and Douglas North.