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Between digital transformation, ethics and migration policy - ENS fellow Nina Amelung researches the collection of biometric data from asylum seekers

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The fellowship program "Datafication in European Societies" of the European New School of Digital Studies (ENS) offers a temporary academic home for international researchers studying digitalization and data in Europe. Dr. Nina Amelung was the first fellow to visit ENS in March and April 2022. She is investigating the social and political consequences of collecting biometric data from migrants at the EU's external borders.

She is particularly focusing on data from the European database Eurodac. It stores biometric data such as fingerprints and, in the future, probably also facial images of people having entered the EU, for example as asylum seekers. "The original aim was to manage asylum application procedures centrally and to avoid so-called asylum shopping in several EU member states," explains Nina Amelung. But in addition to European migration policy, the issue also touches on domestic security interests, she adds. "At the EU level, we are observing that databases are increasingly being opened up to law enforcement agencies," she describes current developments. A gradually increasing and obscure merging of different databases, initially developed separately for mobility and migration control on the one hand and for law enforcement purposes on the other, as well as an expansion of the collected data are added to the expanded access rights. Critical migration research on this topic, which Nina Amelung takes part in, warns against criminalizing asylum seekers, discrimination and general suspicion in light of these developments.

"This also raises the question of proportionality: which data do you collect from EU citizens and which from non-EU citizens, and for what purposes?", Nina Amelung highlights one of the central critical issues. The identity of those entering the country is recorded and managed by biometric and digital technologies, she says. While it is generally assumed that these technologies operate flawlessly and smoothly, this is demonstrably not always the case, Amelung says. "Especially newer, controversial biometric technologies such as iris scans are often tested on groups of people in situations such as refugee camps, where they have no choice and cannot defend themselves," Nina Amelung sums up her criticism. In addition, there is a lack of information for those seeking protection at the EU's external borders. They often don't understand what data is collected for what purpose, where and for how long it is stored, and what options they have to object. The development of digital technology, she said, is driven primarily by the idea of digital transformation and innovation; other ethical or migration policy implications are neglected.

Nina Amelung used the months of the fellowship for her field research and conducted interviews with actors from the asylum administration, police authorities and migrant organizations. Access was definitely complicated in the process, she said. "With migrants seeking protection, questions of research ethics arise, and a relationship of trust must first be established. With the authorities, it is difficult because there is a high degree of discretion here.”

In her research project, Nina Amelung compares the situation in Germany and Portugal. After many months of research under pandemic conditions, the two-month fellowship at the German-Polish border came just in time. For the sociologist from the University of Lisbon, the ENS is located in a great area for border research. Not least, she appreciated the opportunities for collegial exchange with researchers who are also doing critical migration and border research. The focus on digitalization and data protection and the interdisciplinary exchange with other colleagues in the joint ENS research seminar were also enriching for her.

At the end of her research stay, the sociologist considers the fellowship at the European New School, which was funded by the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, a rewarding experience. An experience she now shares with Mennatullah Hendawy, an interdisciplinary urban planner from Ain Shams University in Cairo who is the second scholarship holder in the program and will stay at ENS until mid-May 2022.