Nov 16, 2015

People Watching: Tracking and Monitoring Migration

By Joanne Wheeler, 16 November 2015

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

Satellite Earth observation technologies can and will play an increasingly important role inmonitoring the movement of migrants and refugees.

The process of migration is fraught with risk. Recall the 300 Eritrean migrants who died when the boat transporting them capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, the asylum seekers held in processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the same year, and the stream of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan that we witness on our TV every day. Particularly vulnerable migrants are those fleeing conflicts, war and persecution — a number which has risen rapidly in recent years.

In relation to Syria alone, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) believes there are more than 1.6 million “persons of concern” and more than 1.4 million registered Syrian refugees. These numbers do not include the huge numbers of Syrians displaced within their own country as the conflict intensifies.

There were 232 million international migrants living outside their home countries in 2013, according to the UN Population Division.

The need for reliable information

Both the vulnerability of migrants and the challenge of managing them is exacerbated by the lack of reliable information, documentation and regulations for handling migrants, refugees, displaced and stateless persons. The information available on migrant movements is limited by current data collection methodologies and inconsistencies between them.

The current Syrian crisis accelerates the need for a responsive solution that can help the monitoring and control of migrants across the Mediterranean and through Eastern European borders. Although the crisis may be perceived as a local situation worldwide, it covers a large geographic area of land and water that can be covered efficiently only by satellite.

It is satellite technology that can offer such an efficient and effective solution to monitoring and tracking migrants across large areas.

The Role of Satellites

As described by Corentin Guillo, head of missions at the U.K. Satellite Applications Catapult, three important factors play a critical role in the detection and identification of populations of migrants: the capacity to monitor activities over large areas of land and sea; the ability to collect detailed data to take proportionate and measured actions; and the capability to disseminate up-to date observations to decision makers.

Satellite imaging solutions such as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) offer the opportunity to cover large areas of interest, independent of weather conditions. When complemented by Very High Resolution (VHR) optical imaging solutions, below 1metre resolution, SAR missions enable the tasking of optical missions over narrow areas to detect and monitor activities.

“Very high resolution satellite images can provide invaluable information for humanitarian response when data is difficult to access due to political or geographical reasons, among others. Organizations such as the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), and UNHCR and volunteer communities such as the Standby Task Force, all play an essential role in the use and development of geospatial technologies for crisis mapping, including in large-scale refugee situations,” comments Magali Bonne-Moreau, senior lecturer at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

It is clear that Earth observation technologies will play an ever-increasing role in monitoring the movement of people at times of migration and refugee crisis. “One method would be to monitor the size and changes at refugee camps both on the edge of the Mediterranean, and adjacent to the European land borders,” says Ray Purdy, director of air and space evidence and honorary visiting senior fellow at the University College London. UNOSAT has used satellite technology to map the expanding camps in Jordan and Syria, portraying the tragic scale of the suffering of the Syrian people.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), connected and directed by satellite, can be used to monitor the movement of people on land and sea, supplying very high resolution real time surveillance at specific nodes.

The Use of Large Constellations of Satellites

In the near future, lower cost access to space, standardization and commoditization of technologies will enable the deployment of a greater number, and larger constellations, of SAR and optical satellites. They will offer not only the capability to map very large areas on a daily basis, but also to disseminate information in real time by offering a seamless solution.

“New space organizations are innovating at an unprecedented pace and exploiting commoditized technologies to develop large satellite constellations, which, associated with cutting edge technologies from incumbent industries, will offer unique solutions to tackle challenges such as accurate weather forecast, maritime traffic monitoring, global warming and the monitoring of migrants.” says Guillo.

Coordinated Information Gathering

It is important to recognize the current shortcomings of the information available on migrant movement. Existing imaging assets are operated by different organizations and consequently there are commercial and technical challenges to compose an integrated end-to-end solution.

“International legal efforts to address marine-based issues such as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, human trafficking, migration and piracy have tended to be fragmented across multiple agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Labor Organization (ILO), and others. A much more coordinated and coherent approach is necessary including a framework for regime interaction and common work programs. Within such a framework, existing technologies (satellite tracking, radar and microwave-based sensors) could be more easily explored”, says Erika J. Techera, professor and dean of law, at The University of Western Australia. “A more focused approach to the use of remote sensing technologies in monitoring and enforcement would also be of interest to countries involved in bilateral agreements where efforts are currently centered on physical observation and interception through, for example, ship rider agreements.”

The issue of the huge movement of migrants and migrant smuggling transcends land, air and sea borders, and requires a response that does likewise — with the efficient and coordinated use of satellite technology. Satellite images will be an essential tool in monitoring and tracking migrants and refugees and in the elaboration and coordination of an international regulatory regime dealing with the issue.

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