Viewing Migration from Above

Many socioeconomic factors and human security issues are forcing human migration. However, there is a predicted significant growth of migration in the 21st century due to climate migrants fleeing from abnormal environmental conditions. Unexpected mass migration to Europe can also occur from future conflict anywhere in Eurasia or Africa. Satellite monitoring is a preventative measure that can save human lives and ease the burden on receiving countries through trendspotting and early detection of irregularities.

ESA – The Sentinel 2-C, with “colour vision” went into orbit in 2022 to allow more minute scrutiny of European territory.

All significant human activity on Earth leaves a footprint on the surface of our planet that can be seen from outer space. The European Space Agency (ESA) has developed and deployed the Copernicus Satellite program with six specific Earth monitoring areas: atmosphere, marine, land, climate change, security, and emergency. These satellites are dubbed Sentinels, which provide terabytes of valuable data on Earth’s surface each day. There are eight Sentinel satellites in orbit currently, each with a different mission under the broader environmental monitoring goal of the Copernicus program.

Why Satellites?

Since the mid-2010s, the ESA has shared its plethora of Copernicus data with Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard). Frontex has a history of successfully using satellite data to detect migrant ships crossing the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, their eyes on overland crossings and migrant camps aren’t entirely sufficient.

Sea Monitoring

Frontex – Migrant vessel satellite images supported by aerial assets

Thanks to satellite optical imagery, the Copernicus program reported several large-scale sea interceptions between 2015-2018. The imaging is near-time (as in, there is a slight delay) and is cross-referenced with radar from patrol boats on the surface. The entire process from detection to rescue has many actors involved: the countries of departure and origin, Frontex, the ESA, and the Frontex vessel that will intervene. A single rescue can save up to hundreds of migrants, all of whom will be processed at the appropriate port of entry. Unfortunately, thousands of migrants still die each year in the Mediterranean from dangerous sailing conditions. Continued ESA/Frontex coordination improvements and quicker unauthorized vessel recognition are crucial to saving more lives. The shortening of near-time imaging to real-time can make all the difference in saving a boat about to capsize.

Land Migration

Large masses of people moving over land become noticeable via satellites from the changes they make on the landscape and the common routes they establish. Satellite data can monitor hotspots in border crossings, and migrants can be traced back to their point of origin. Used innovatively, satellite imagery can bring humanitarian aid to spots of vulnerability along migration routes that might otherwise be unknown or too remote to access with regular emergency support.

Data collected on the ground is helpful, but it cannot trump the benefits of monitoring large swaths of land over significant periods. A bird’s eye view saves time, money, and lives and protects migrants from countries that might be neglecting their humanitarian duties.

Amnesty International obtained satellite images taken two days apart in 2015 that show Hungary bisecting a motorway on its Serbian border with a barbed wire fence. This caused masses of people to halt in place and attempt to shelter in the open without the proper resources. The border closure by Hungary subsequently caused a mass migration to Croatian borders. It was Amnesty International’s intervention and use of satellite data that recognized the cause of this sudden change in movement, which they then used to alert the international community. This data is undeniable evidence that international actors can use to hold border countries accountable for turning migrants away. At the very least, it is enough to instruct where humanitarian relief should be concentrated.

Refugee Camp Observation

Reuters – Migrants are forced to resettle after a preventable fire.

NGOs like Lumen Watch and academic institutions like Penn State University and the Colorado School of Mines’ Earth Observation Group use satellite data to monitor migrant camps. They use infrared imaging from third-party satellites to survey living conditions in camps utilizing data from light pollution, surrounding vegetation, and water sources to estimate population and quality of life. They found that many migrant camps have low housing capacities and are dangerously overpopulated. However, the only monitored camps are in Asia and Africa, not Europe. There is surprisingly little satellite data usage on refugee camps within Europe – it seems the focus is on preventing migration with border protection and not the conditions of migrants within their borders.

The recently closed Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was the most densely populated European camp. Human Rights Watch referred to it as an “open-air prison.” When the UN Human Rights Council investigated the migrant camps throughout Europe, the European Commission lacked information and recommended asking member states directly. The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum was only able to provide the names and locations of camps. Moria was built to be a temporary settlement, but it ended up sticking around for years. It was clear that the government had no plans for relocation or expansion of the camp designed for 3,000 people. It strained the lives of the locals and made life miserable for its inhabitants. A fire in the camp in September of 2020 left 13,000 people without shelter. Utilized satellite monitoring could have shown the progression of overpopulation over time and given the Greek government reason to address the issue before it got out of hand – either on their own or through international pressure.

Is the EU doing enough with its satellites?

There are areas where the EU performs well in satellite migrant observation and areas that deserve more funding and attention. Migrants should not have to rely on the goodwill of NGOs and academic institutions to protect them; that responsibility should fall upon the EU and its member states. An increase in funding and new monitoring practices can help prevent another unharmonious response to migration like the world saw in 2015. Copernicus data sharing is crucial to European border security, but those satellites are fine-tuned for primarily environmental observation – not human security. Considering the future of climate migration, the EU should consider equipping future ESA satellites with instruments solely focused on human migration monitoring.