Robot Dogs Policing America’s Southern Border? It’s Coming Sooner than You Think

In a world destabilized by climate change, governments will need new ways of managing a rise in irregular migration, beyond doubling down on the use of force.

April 5, 2022
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Illustration by Paul Lachine.

Desolate border areas tend to be governments’ preferred test theatre for cutting-edge security and military technologies. These now include semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI) — the latter often referred to as killer robots.

But determining what is a credible target for these systems to attack is a fluid and ever-changing technical and political process. It’s also one that will soon be made much more complex by runaway climate change, which will blur the lines between security risks, humanitarian needs and national interests.

As this scenario unfolds, more fearsome hardware alone will be insufficient to address emergent border security challenges — irregular migration, in particular.

Machines Are Tailor-Made for Border Defence

On February 1, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealed its intentions to deploy 100-pound robot dogs to America’s southern border with Mexico as a force multiplier for patrols by human agents from US Customs and Border Protection. Manufactured by Philadelphia-based company Ghost Robotics, the units’ rollout will come after more than two years of testing and refinement by the research and development arm of DHS.

The robot dogs will carry “payloads” consisting of 360-degree cameras with thermal and night vision, as well as sensors that can detect trace levels of various chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear substances. All of this data is to be continuously fed back to border surveillance centres. Authorities involved in the project have said the robot dogs, which can be programmed for autonomous mode, will be unarmed.

Yet there’s reason to doubt this will remain the case in the long term. America’s border security efforts have undergone a serious military makeover since the Obama administration, and Ghost Robotics revealed another robotic dog unit equipped with an assault rifle at the US Army’s annual convention in October 2021. The American military is also a leading proponent of killer robots, and the US Department of Defense’s 1033 Program has encouraged the cut-rate sale and transfer of billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military tactical gear to other US federal and local law enforcement agencies in the post-9/11 era.

Moreover, intelligent weapons systems seem well-suited to safeguard sovereign boundaries in a hotter world, insofar as machines can better withstand the types of scorching temperatures and bleak landscapes that will spread because of climate change. Referring to the US-Mexico border, the program manager for the DHS robot dog initiative has argued the region “can be an inhospitable place for man and beast, and that is exactly why a machine may excel there.”

Some observers contend that killer robots can play a constructive role in militarized border disputes as well, by raising the threshold for war; South Korea, for example, has installed domestically produced, nearly fully autonomous sentry guns along the perimeter of its demilitarized zone with North Korea. The units are accurate from a distance of several kilometres away, virtually ensuring any ground assault ordered by Pyongyang would fail.

Seoul has reportedly permitted the sale and export of these robot turrets to government clients throughout the Middle East and elsewhere for the better part of a decade. Israel, India, China and Turkey have already adopted similar intelligent weapons as part of their border defences as well, ranging from sentry guns of their own to aerial drones and unmanned ground vehicles.

However, a latent dark side of this technology is how killer robots — rather than serving as a bulwark against legitimate armed threats — could be co-opted to suppress heightened levels of irregular migration that occur as the world becomes destabilized by climate change.

Wealthy Nations’ Climate Refugee Complex

With average global temperatures set to soar past 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels as early as 2034, and the mass displacement from the extreme weather, rise in armed conflict, and local and global economic fragility expected to accompany this change, conditions will combine to shatter any previous records for population movement. The World Bank forecasts that absent aggressive, coordinated action on climate change, 216 million people could be forced to migrate within their own countries by 2050, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Other experts estimate as many as 1.2 billion people could be displaced.

The number of international refugees from the Global South using the climate crisis as a reason to try to reach the Global North via unauthorized means will be minuscule by comparison. But this flow could still amount to millions of people — a large number when viewed in isolation or distorted through disinformation and politically motivated rhetoric. And when it comes to unauthorized border crossings, perception always carries more weight than reality. Negative perceptions will be amplified as migrant flows become more desperate, leading inevitably to more violent clashes with local law enforcement in transit countries.

Global resettlement spaces for refugees offered by host nations have dropped by more than half since 2011 according to data from the UN Refugee Agency, with anxieties over immigration in the developed world being a major factor. Meanwhile, a significant hardening of borders has taken place — a dynamic that has been accelerated by the adoption of intelligent border security technologies. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Europe after its 2015 migrant crisis, which saw 1.3 million migrants, refugees and asylum seekers enter the continent over the course of several months.

While seemingly a dramatic influx of people, 1.3 million amounted to less than 0.3 percent of the bloc’s total population of 508 million at the time.

Yet, in reaction to the xenophobia and ultra-nationalism this sparked across the continent — which paved the way for Brexit in 2016 and have roiled European politics ever since — member states of the European Union, in conjunction with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), have invested heavily in high-tech, military-grade deterrents. These include aerial surveillance drones used in Austria, Croatia, Italy and Malta, as well as AI-powered lie-detector units used at processing centres in Greece, Hungary and Latvia, and sound cannons deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. During talks on reforms to Europe’s migration and asylum systems held by the European Commission in September 2020, Germany’s then minister of the interior, building and community, Horst Seehofer — who often disagreed with Angela Merkel on immigration and two years earlier claimed migration was “the mother of all problems” — stated that “Europe’s fate will be determined by its migration policy.”

The imminent deployment of autonomous robot dogs to the United States’ southern border likewise comes as Republicans and moderate Democrats sound the alarm over a spike in irregular movement that has occurred there since President Joe Biden took office. Government data shows that during the 2021 fiscal year, American border officers had almost 1.7 million encounters with people attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico, edging out the previous record-high set in 2000.

The neglected context is that while border encounters between migrants and agents are up, the estimated number of undetected irregular southern border crossings have plummeted — decreasing 92 percent since 2000 according to DHS data. An enhanced interdepartmental dragnet throughout the area means that the number of border crossers now apprehended and turned away, or detained and later deported, is vastly greater than the number of those who reach sanctuary cities. Rather than experiencing a supposed migrant crisis, America is, arguably, witnessing the successful outcome of a two-decade, bipartisan effort to wall off the United States from Latin America.

Nevertheless, the parallel rise in climate change–induced conflict, infectious diseases, terrorism and migration, emanating from places such as West Africa’s embattled Sahel region — described by the United Nations’ humanitarian chief in 2020 as a “canary in the coalmine of our warming planet” — may add to the popularity of what has been coined eco-bordering. Promoted by far-right groups in Europe and North America, this nativist, ethno-nationalist movement pushes a false environmental ideology that says cutting off immigration is necessary to preserve domestic ecosystems.

Hardening Borders Is Not a Long-Term Solution

It may seem drastic to suggest governments could someday use killer robots as an instrument to deter climate refugees. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides graphic confirmation of how the world has entered a dangerous new interregnum where international norms and humanitarian law appear no longer capable of constraining the determined use of force. A consequence of this will be nation-states everywhere reassessing their own border security and finding new ways to fortify their sovereignty.

The humanitarian fallout of the Russian invasion has also underscored how most governments already stratify migrants into different tiers of “worthiness” based on minimalist interpretations of who qualifies as a refugee under international law.

European countries have rightfully thrown the door open for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian atrocities. Canada’s government has likewise said it will waive most standard visa requirements for an “unlimited number” of Ukrainians seeking safety. Contrast this to the general reluctance of the developed world to take in individuals and families fleeing violence, conflict or persecution in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

The Biden administration struck an undisclosed deal in April 2021 with Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico for their security forces to forcibly block Central American migrants from reaching the United States. The European Union has for years funded and outfitted abusive paramilitary forces in Sudan and Niger, and militia-controlled coast guard groups in Libya, to suppress movement via migrant gateways in Sub-Saharan Africa. This, despite extensive evidence that European support is enabling massive human-rights abuses. Europe’s leading powers, France and Germany, are both opposed to a ban on killer robots. As is Australia, where multiple governments since 2013 have upheld policies of detaining irregular migrants in offshore prisons.

In January 2022, the British government proposed a policy to task the Royal Navy with deterring migrant dinghies from crossing the English Channel from France. A record 28,300 people made the journey in 2021 — more than triple the total from the year before. The controversial “pushback” plan was tellingly devised as part of “Operation Red Meat,” a host of policies announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and aimed at conservative voters to distract from Johnson’s premiership being embroiled in scandal at the time.

Ruthless state actors are also beginning to weaponize migration itself — most recently, Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko. In mid-2021, in reaction to European sanctions over his brutal crushing of a pro-democracy opposition movement the year before, Lukashenko orchestrated a scheme whereby thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, were duped into paying sizable fees to fly into Belarus under the false impression that they were headed to safe-haven countries in Western Europe. Instead, they were left stranded at the borders of neighbouring EU member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The three Baltic countries — each generally averse to accepting irregular migrants — quickly triggered states of emergency and mobilized soldiers to their borders.

Going forward, while killer robots will no doubt offer advantages in detecting, deterring and confronting armed threats from state and non-state actors, they will do nothing to address the root causes of rising global levels of climate displacements and irregular migration. Additional solutions will be necessary to manage the unprecedented movement of people, beyond just doubling down on the use of lethal force at borders.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Kyle Hiebert is a researcher and analyst formerly based in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, as deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.