The EU has been accused of planning “a powerful tool for the mass surveillance” of migrants through proposed changes to a fingerprint database for asylum seekers.
Campaigners from 31 non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International and the European Network Against Racism, made the charge in an open letter to the European parliament urging MEPs to rethink plans to overhaul the Eurodac database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints.
In 2018 lawmakers from the European parliament and EU interior ministers struck a political deal to expand the database, meaning it would include facial images, passport or ID card details, as well as fingerprints. Authorities would also be able to start fingerprinting and photographing migrant children as young as six, compared with the current minimum age limit of 14.
The changes have yet to come into force, as the draft regulation has been frozen pending an agreement on long-stalled plans to reform the centrepiece of EU asylum law, the Dublin regulation, which governs which EU member state takes charge of asylum claims.
In comparison with the ferocious arguments over refugee quotas, which roiled the EU in the wake of the 2015-16 migrant crisis, the proposed changes to Eurodac have attracted little attention.
The NGOs said the expansion of the fingerprint database to include facial images of asylum seekers was “intrusive, disproportionate and privacy invasive … People on the move deserve the same level of protection as anyone else and the EU should not take advantage of their vulnerable situation to subject them to mass surveillance and undignified treatment.”.
Campaigners also criticised proposals to fingerprint and photograph migrant children. “Taking and retaining the biometric data of children for non protection related purposes is a seriously invasive and unjustified infringement on the rights of the child,” the letter states, claiming the plans contradict UN guidance.
EU lawmakers have argued the database needs to be extended to preteens to help identify and trace missing children, as part of efforts to protect minors from falling into the hands of human traffickers or smugglers. More than 18,000 refugee and migrant children went missing between 2018 and 2020, according to the cross-border journalism project Lost in Europe.
While the draft agreement states that force should never be used on minors to take photos or fingerprints, it allows “a proportionate degree of coercion” as a last resort, if such an approach is also permitted in a member state’s national law.
The Eurodac fingerprint database was created in 2000 in an attempt to deter migrants from making multiple asylum claims in different EU member states. Under current EU law, refugees are usually required to file an application for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, a system that puts pressure on southern Europe.
Despite the 2018 political deal on the database, critics see a chance to change the draft regulation, after the proposal was revised and retabled in 2020 as part of a broader second attempt at revising EU migration laws. The NGOs are urging members of the European parliament’s justice and home affairs committee to rethink the Eurodac regulation.
“Asylum seekers’ and migrants’ digital rights are being sacrificed to reinforce Fortress Europe,” said Chloé Berthélémy, policy adviser at the European Digital Rights group, which organised the letter. “The migration package is turning the Eurodac database into a powerful mass surveillance tool to push back, track and deport people seeking international protection. The European parliament must reverse this rights-violating policy.”