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Surveillance won’t stop the coronavirus

Access to adequate health care, including protective equipment and sufficient testing, will do more good than another hackathon. Dal New York Times.

In the Moria refugee camp in Greece, one tap is shared among 1,300 people. Social distancing is difficult to do. Refugee communities from Kenya to Bangladesh, Lebanon and Syria are vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.

The answer to stopping the virus is not increased surveillancethrough new technology or preventing access into the camps for medical personnel. Instead, we need to redistribute resources and ensure access to health care for all people, regardless of their immigration status.

Coronavirus cases have already been reported on the Greek Island of Lesbos, a camp that was built for 3,000 people but now is the home of over 20,000, as well as the Ritsona site north of Athens. People seeking asylum are kept on crowded transport ships, children are detained even after testing positive for the coronavirus, and families are sent to far-flung locations away from urban centers.

Doctors Without Borders has called for an evacuation of the overcrowded Greek refugee camps while densely populated besieged enclaves like Gaza remain areas of concern for doctors for their lack of equipment and medical care. Active-conflict zones with internally displaced people are even worse.

Syria, for example, appears to be downplaying the spread of the coronavirus, denying reports by doctors and claiming that there are no cases.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. agency responsible for humanitarian and resettlement services for refugees, has appealed for international support during this public health emergency.


However, pandemic responses are also political. Refugees have long been tied to tropes of bringing disease and illness, underscored by growing xenophobia and racism. Not only are these formulations inaccurate; they also legitimize incursions on human rights. As governments move toward biosurveillance to contain the spread of the pandemic, we are seeing an increase in tracking, automated drones and other types of technologies that purport to help manage migration. If previous use of technology is any indication, refugees and people crossing borders will be disproportionately targeted.

From drones patrolling the Mediterranean to A.I.-powered “lie detectors,” we have been tracking new tools for migration management and their human rights impacts on marginalized populations. Virus-killing robots, cellphone tracking and artificially intelligent thermal cameras can all be used against refugees.

Our research has shown that technological experiments on refugees are often discriminatory, breach privacy and endanger lives. Algorithms used to power this technology are vulnerable to the same decision-making of concern to humans: discrimination, bias and error.

Little regulation exists to govern technological experimentation. This governance gap leaves room for far-reaching incursions on people’s human rights. As a roster of U.N. Special Rapporteurs and human rights experts noted in March, for emergency measures to be human rights-compliant, these measures should be necessary, proportionate, lawful and nondiscriminatory. Even the World Health Organization has issued a strong warning to the tech sector: Any tools developed to fight the pandemic must respect human rights.

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