It’s 2044 and the world is grappling with record numbers of climate refugees. A lawyer working in Geneva’s AI-run asylum data centre receives a file mysteriously tagged for review. Who is Scott Sanders?
You have one new email.
Zoya didn’t recognise the sender, which was strange. It was supposedly impossible to send anonymous emails now, as all messages were automatically encoded with the senders tag. Plus, with all the ways to communicate, including the newest brain implant from pioneer Abgay Khar - the NeuroLink - emails seemed hopelessly out of date, but apparently impossible to let go of. Which is why she still has 356 unread emails in her inbox. Now 357. Only one worth opening.
For review. It was a simple file, in the appropriate Refugee Assessment Commission format.
Name: Scott Sanders
Reason for Displacement: Climate Fires, Disease
Aside from the anonymous email address, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The reason for displacement wasn’t new. Despite the increased risks worldwide, the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees hadn’t changed in 20 years, since 2025. When she was assigned a case, there was usually a reason for it. An appeal, or a human rights violation that needed to be investigated. Here, it just said transferred. Out of the tens of millions of refugees, what was so special about Scott Sanders?
She probably shouldn’t have, but Zoya activated her Neurolink to contact him. The video call went through immediately. He was attractive enough, wearing pinstripe pyjamas: light blue with dark stripes. It was monogrammed, with two S’s intertwined on the breast pocket. He looked a bit groggy, but well enough. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mr Sanders?”
A quick look at his room showed lots of windows and natural daylight. There were trees outside and no traffic noise. Lucky twat.
“Hi Mr. Sanders. My name is Zoya, I work at the Refugee Assessment Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. I came across your file and thought I’d check in. Everything ok?”
“Why do you have my file?”
“Just standard procedure, sir.” Nothing about this was standard, but he didn’t need to know that.
“I have a few questions about your application process. This isn’t being recorded or anything, it’s just to complete the file.” Zoya didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable, despite her pyjama distaste.
“ You know, I always read about how people would spend weeks on boats, and how those lefty bleeding hearts had to go out and save them, and then people whining about the detention centres blah blah. But that’s clearly a bunch of socialist fear-mongering.”
“I had to get away from the fires. My entire compound was burning. I paid for a hovercraft to get me out of there using my water credits. Apparently they don’t even have a first class section. I’d like to lodge a formal complaint about that. I guess you’re probably too junior – just tell your manager.”
Hovercraft? Water credits? Compound? First Class? THIS GUY.
“Anyway, I got to the border, filled in all the forms, and here I am.”
That definitely wasn’t the new process…
“Do you remember the forms you filled in?”
A shrug and a look. “I gave them access to my socials, my NeuroLink, details about my mining business, what I’d studied, all that. By the way, I didn’t allow anyone to use my data, so it better be secure.”
This guy. Zoya just nodded.
Scott scratched his head and looked around. “Not sure where I am now though. At one point they had me wait in a separate room, then I woke up here. I said that I wanted to move to the Canadian Rockies, so …”
“You just woke up there today?” In silk monogrammed pyjamas? And with no one else around?
Another look. “ We done here?”
“Despite the increased risks worldwide, the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees hadn’t changed in 20 years, since 2025.”
Zoya nodded and cut the link. She leaned back in her chair, and dove back into his file. Based on his results, his request for asylum was rejected outright. Yes, he was wealthy – the water credits alone were proof of that – but he had no discernible skills. Almost every country in the world had implemented the new Refugee Assessment Model: looking at social media interactions and online activity, crossed with skills and work history, the model prepares a detailed assessment of their suitability, based on local needs and requirements.
It was a machine learning neural network, mistakenly coined AI in the early 2020’s, trained from examples of previous human decisions in similar circumstances. The machines could learn and make assessments, but they weren’t coming to get us. Not just yet. Most countries were happy accepting plumbers, welders, farmers and even accountants, even if they had social media interactions that didn’t match with local behavioural standards. Managers and other generalist types had less luck, but could still be useful. But the independently wealthy? This guy? His skill was being rich. Somehow, he was able to game the system. Better to spend her time on those who needed help. Time to forget about Scott.
It was a hope that was short lived. Just then, Zoya received another message – a video file through the NeuroLink. Scott was asleep in a very different room from the one she had just seen. Why would someone send her a video of him sleeping?
All she knew was that this was way above her pay grade. It was time to go see Helena. Despite her job in the new, most extensively funded unit in all time, she wasn’t anywhere near the Palais. Instead, she worked in a small, nondescript yet highly secured office building facing what was left of Lake Geneva’s drying out crater. The aim was to avoid any and all visibility. The Palais, with its latest holographic enhancements, was anything but ordinary. Zoya walked across the unexciting hall, past framed photos from the James Webb 2 space telescope and a wilting plant, to see her supervisor, Helena.
Unfortunately, she was in The Bunker. Helena never went down there unless she absolutely had to, and Zoya understood why. The Bunker was a nightmare. It was cold, dry, and soulless. Even with the fluorescent lights and the air conditioning units, it felt like some strange frozen hell. But, if Helena was down in The Bunker, she’d have to go too. Which meant she was going to have to print this thing out - on paper. Barbaric.
“The Bunker was a nightmare. It was cold, dry, and soulless. Even with the fluorescent lights and the air conditioning units, it felt like some strange frozen hell.”
File in hand, Zoya headed for the elevator. First, the eye scan to take her deep underground, then to the steel doors for a full body scan. Once the all-clear light appeared signalling that she had none of the official 15 pandemic-level viruses, the doors opened into a tunnel leading to a room under the lake itself. Financed by a network of philanthropic billionaires, The Bunker was a reinforced underground fortress of data preservation and security, where her boss was currently berating her friend Mik, one of the few good people in her organisation and a brilliant tech supporter.
“Helena!” Zoya said too loudly.
Mik, looking grateful for the distraction, happily scurried away, disappearing into the server rows.
Helena turned to her quickly, still tense. “What is it, Zoya?”
“I just got this file. Honestly, it makes no sense.”
Helena took the documents from Zoya’s outstretched hand. She flipped through the pages, and then looked up to Zoya, surprised.
“Someone emailed this to you?”
“Yes. And a video of him sleeping, but I don’t recognise the email address.”
“You sure it’s real?”
“Yes, I called him. He’s real, but the whole conversation was strange.”
“Well that’s no surprise, considering the new system.” She was strangely unbothered.
“Look here.” Zoya pointed to the document. “He was rejected. Somehow, he’s in a cozy chalet. But nothing else.”
Helena sighed. “Have you talked to anyone about this yet?”
“No. Just him.”
“Well, there’s that at least. Good you haven’t spoken to anyone else yet. You say he’s fine?”
“Well yes, but…”
“Just leave it, and get back to the review of the French refugee files. I want a full report next week.”
Zoya couldn’t believe it. She tried not to be argumentative, but often failed. This was one of those times. “Helena, the email was anonymous. This guy did not get through the review and is in a luxury chalet, whereas people are being rejected left, right and centre. I think …”
“Drop it Zoya.” She turned on her heels and disappeared back into the servers.
“Not bloody likely,” Zoya said aloud, but only after Helena was out of earshot.
Zoya contacted everyone she knew, in every agency imaginable. She tried the Surviving the Climate agencies, the health agencies, and at one point even risked a call to the Palais itself. Despite the cordial relationship between the agencies, she was simply reminded at every turn that her organisation had more funding and different oversight, with very few links to anyone else. Over the last twenty years, government funding of international organisations had slowed down considerably. First there was the Second Great Depression, then there were the Water Wars. Not forgetting the great blaze of 2032, the Global Inferno, which destroyed an entire continent. Money had to come from elsewhere.
There was just one more call to make.
Like Zoya’s department, the AI Ethics unit was new. Based out of Lausanne and independently funded, they looked at consent for data usage, safety and transparency of processes, fair model use and data privacy. The system was still new: they focused on supervising the training of the model, looking to avoid bias, all while trying to debug the deep-learning neural network that made the system work. All of which was very interesting, but only told her that the system wasn’t as robust as it should be – someone could still play around with it, and no one would know. She was left with one option: back to The Bunker. Hopefully Helena was gone and Mik would know something.
“And you know they don’t know how the system works. No one does.”
Once more, she journeyed downward. She walked down the rows of servers, finally finding Mik’s desk, hidden in the furthest corner of the room, surrounded by thick glass walls.
“Mik, I have a question for you,” Zoya said.
“I heard you talking to Helena before. Scott Sanders.”
“Exactly. What is going on? Why do I have this file? This has to be some kind of privacy breach, right?”
“Why did it take you so long to come see me?”
“Mik, I had to try the official agencies first, you know that.”
“And you know they don’t know how the system works. No one does.”
Zoya sighed as she sat down in front of their desk. This was going to take a while. “Look, I’m sorry, Mik. You know the politics. That’s the job.”
Mik chuckled. “You realise I’m one of the only ones who knows how the system works, right? What the system actually is.”
“Well, I mean technically there are only like twelve of us here, Mik…”
That got her an eye-roll. She supposed she deserved it. “Wait, what do you mean, what the system actually is? We know what it is. Did you send me the file?”
“Of course not, but think about it, Zoya. What did they send you exactly?” Mik left it there, and got up and poured some water into a kettle.
Zoya tried to prod for more details. “Scott’s intake file and a strange video.”
Silence. Mik didn’t turn around, focused on the kettle instead. Zoya tried another tactic. “I wonder why Helena didn’t want me to look into this.”
There was the reaction she was hoping for. Mik’s shoulders tensed, and they turned around. “Have you received anything else since?”
“Nothing. And that video… it was just so creepy. It was completely stalkerish, and made no sense. It looked like he was somewhere else entirely.”
Mik handed her a cup of tea.
She sat there, cup in hand, thinking. Why would someone break into the system and send her this file? Why would they want to flag that someone had actually been helped?
Clearly, the system itself must be the issue. “Mik, what aren’t you telling me here?”
“Here, look at this.”
It was a very long document, on paper as usual. Her eyes began to glaze over at the potent cocktail of buzzwords and flow charts.She was ready to give up.
“Wait, what’s this?”
In the document, there were plans for another facility, something in a repurposed portion of the Large Hadron Collider. There were diagrams as well as drawings that looked strangely familiar. She went back to her printed folder and checked the stills from the video. It was the same place.
“Mik, what is this?”
Mik got up and gestured for her to follow. They went down a series of back corridors that she had never seen before, into another elevator and even deeper underground. There, she could hear what sounded like a train.
What Zoya found was not what she had expected. The big room that stretched out before her, laid with rows upon rows of beds, was a hive of activity. Officials in white took sleeping people in pinstriped pyjamas from the train on stretchers and placed them in beds. Each one was laid down, then placed what looked like a mix between a hands-free headset and a giant pair of VR goggles upon their heads. Then a nurse inserted feeding and emptying tubes to each unconscious person. She walked up and down the aisles in a state of shock.
“Welcome to detention centre 342.”
Zoya’s eyes zipped left to right, trying to take it all in. “No wonder Helena didn’t want me to look into this. There are 342 of these?” Her anger was palpable. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
A shrug. Mik shrugged a lot. It was annoying.
Walking up and down the rows of beds, she found Scott, comfortably tucked into a bed for new arrivals. “How?”
Mik handed Zoya a folder. “Time to brush up on mental projection therapy and virtual reality mind mapping. A few of the infamous twelve knew. And now, one more. Maybe that’s why it was sent to you?”
“I’m going to need something stronger than tea.”
Alnaaze Nathoo is a writer, humanitarian, and public health advocate living in Switzerland. Whether it’s through her work with international organisations or through her writing, she aims to erase artificial boundaries: to help the world see that those considered as “other” are not so different and that more often than not, much of life and what we experience in it is universal. She is a co-writer of the non-fiction anthology: "50 Amazing Swiss Women: True Stories you Should Know About", and co-editor of the Keeping It Under Wraps anthology series, where her essays appear. She has also published short stories, essays and poetry.
This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.