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Friday, May 24, 2024

The Dangerous Digital Creep of Britain's ‘Hostile Environment’

In 2019, Anna moved from Poland to the UK with her partner and three children. Soon after they settled into their home and new life, he became violent. Anna attempted to leave, taking their children with her. But when she contacted her local council’s social services, they asked her about her immigration status. There was a problem.

Anna—a pseudonym, for privacy and safety reasons—had a valid visa under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), which required European citizens to register with the British immigration authorities after Britain voted to leave the EU in 2017. But when she tried to prove it, she couldn’t. She had never received a text message or a physical letter saying that she had settled status. Anna went back into the household with her children and her abuser, with nowhere else to go.

When Anna got in touch with the immigration authorities, they put her through to a technical team that, she says, rarely called her back and seemed to constantly be too busy, with long waiting times. Once she got through to the helpline, they confirmed that she had made a valid application (and that her children had settled status, so they had the right to remain in the UK). But they couldn’t give her access to her account. Without it, she couldn’t generate a sharecode—digital proof of her immigration status that would allow her to access social services, get a job, or rent an apartment.

After another serious incident, the police finally gave her abuser an injunction. Anna left the house, but she lost a job offer because she couldn’t prove her immigration status. She couldn’t apply for benefits because she didn’t have proof that she was also actively working. In March 2022, she received confirmation through a charity that was helping her that she had presettled status. But she still hasn’t been contacted by the UK’s Home Office directly—and still has no access to her sharecode.

Anna’s story is shocking. But as the UK’s immigration and policing agency, the Home Office, emphasizes a “digital-by-default” approach to border management, these stories are becoming increasingly common. Earlier this year, the Home Office released its “New Plan for Immigration,” which laid out the increasing digitization of the UK’s immigration system. “We will have a seamless, fully digital, end-to end journey for customers interacting with the immigration system by 2025,” the Home Office said in its plan. 

Currently, migrants and people applying for new visas in the UK are encouraged to use an app to submit their biometrics, including scans of their face; to fill out forms online; and to prove their immigration status with sharecodes. Technology is playing a larger role in immigration systems around the world, affecting the ways borders can be enforced in a physical space and borders and immigration status are maintained once people enter a country. For migrants, this increasing digitization of the immigration system makes it possible for the border to be anywhere and everywhere, spreading into all corners of their lives. 

A Hostile Environment

Public interest in migration is significant in the UK, with more than 50 percent of Britons polled saying it was one of the most important issues facing the union. The Home Office has made multiple justifications for its move to digital status: that it will be better for older people who won’t have to keep track of a piece of paper, that it could enhance security for vulnerable people who might otherwise have their documents taken away by nefarious actors (for example, traffickers or exploitative employers), and that there will be sufficient time for people to fully transition to digital status. But campaigners, organizations, and lawyers working with migrant communities around the UK say these digital systems are already rife with problems, many of which will only get worse.

“Do we have an immigration system that treats people as full humans, that is responsive to people’s circumstances and is based on common sense?” asks Mary Atkinson of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a UK-based nonprofit. “A digital system might work to make the system that it’s implementing quicker, but there will always be problems, glitches that cause anguish and real pain.” 

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In 2012, then-home secretary Theresa May announced that the UK’s immigration policy would be geared toward making the UK a “hostile environment” for immigrants. If you didn’t have regularized immigration status (such as a visa or a settlement route), the UK would become such a difficult place to live that you would leave of your own volition. As part of this plan, more and more people were tasked with checking immigration status—from landlords to bank clerks, teachers, university lecturers, and doctors—to ensure that people could access services.

These types of checks have played a role in a host of problems, including the Windrush scandal.  Academics and activists have noted that it has become relatively easy for people to slip through the cracks of legal status, making them vulnerable to removal or detention. Since May, there have been five home secretaries, all of whom have repeatedly emphasized their desire to reduce immigration to the UK (even when these plans draw condemnation from the UN and other international bodies). The most recent, Suella Braverman (who was in the post for 40 days, fired for a security breach, and then reinstated a week later), courted controversy for saying that it was her dream to see refugees to the UK deported to Rwanda. Those in the sector say Braverman is just as hard-line as her predecessor, Priti Patel—if not more so. 

What this means in practice is that people’s information and proof of immigration status are kept on databases owned and operated by the Home Office. The first example of this was the EUSS, but other visa routes are going the same way—such as the Graduate Route visa, which was introduced last year and which people apply for with an app, and the Ukraine Family Scheme, which was introduced earlier in 2022 for people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. If you’re approved to remain under these conditions, when you apply for a job or try to open a bank account, you will be asked to generate a sharecode that your employer or a bank employee or a police officer can input into their end of the Home Office database to verify your status. 

“We’re at the beginning of a widespread conversation about data collection, and we see that the Home Office has no accountability,” says Andreea Dimitrsou, who works at the 3million, a campaign group in the UK that advocates for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.

People working in the sector, particularly with migrant communities, have countless stories of the way that digital-by-default systems are affecting their clients. “We have real concerns about the digital hostile environment,” says Julia Tinsley-Kent of Migrants Rights Network, an NGO. “If people are buying data packages to prove their visa status—that’s a worry, especially with the cost of living. There are risks of harm that haven’t been properly investigated—security issues, people being able to see other people’s statuses erroneously, system failures.”

In 2019, the Home Office announced the Status Checking Project, a centralized database that made it possible for migrants to prove their status. Immigrant rights campaigners and members of parliament at the time called it “seriously concerning,” both because of the scale of data collected and the seeming lack of safeguards in place. As a result of the nature of the UK’s immigration system, where people who aren’t border guards are tasked with checking immigration status, the digitization of these services has wide-reaching impacts.

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“It’s a good idea for the government to be thinking about this, and the government should be taking initiative around digitization,” says Joe Tomlinson, a lecturer at the University of York who has carried out extensive research into automation in the UK’s immigration system. “My concern is that they’re not doing it very well.” Tomlinson and fellow researcher Jed Meers recently released a paper after surveying 200 landlords about their willingness to use a digital immigration checking service when renting to prospective tenants. They found that an applicant whose name didn’t sound “British” but who had a British passport had an 87 percent chance of being accepted as a tenant. However, if this prospective tenant only had digital proof of immigration status, they had a 13 percent chance of being accepted as a tenant—with the digital status taking precedence over factors like employment, age, and gender.

The EUSS has increasingly become a testing ground for some of these issues. “You bake problems into the way that systems are built,” says Tomlinson. “You can have something that looks like it’s producing outcomes, but the procedural systemic flaws happen, and you get situations like what’s happening with the EUSS.” As of June 2022, more than 5.83 million people had applied to the EUSS, with 5.4 million of those granted status. (The Home Office told WIRED in a statement that the total number of people granted status is now 5.9 million.)  But since the program opened in June 2020, the number of people waiting more than 18 months for a decision has grown too, and data breaches are reported frequently.

Vivian, a researcher at a higher education institution who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, says that knowing she would only have digital proof of her immigration status under the EUSS made her worried. “When my partner and I were renewing our mortgage, the bank really scrutinized our digital immigration status. They realized that my name had been recorded properly, with my first name and then my last name, and then my partner’s was recorded with his last name first. So they blocked our mortgage application,” she says “We faced a wall in trying to solve this problem, and we kept getting through to people on the Home Office helpline who said, ‘Look, we’ve taken notice of this but we can’t do anything.’”

Their frustration grew, and instability in the British economy caused Vivian and her partner even more stress. Eventually, they were able to solve the issue by writing a letter to the bank and emphasizing that they were both in full-time employment by large institutions. But Vivian says that she knows they got lucky. ”Essentially, someone at the bank decided to let it go. But what if our status had been harder to read? Or if we were self-employed?”

In a statement, the Home Office defended EUSS as an “overwhelming success” and said it has measures in place when its technology fails to function.

 “Our digital services are rigorously tested and designed to be highly resilient and, as with any major digital program, we have contingency measures in place should issues occur,” the Home Office said. “If individuals experience technical issues, they are still able to evidence their rights by gaining support from our resolution center, available seven days a week.”

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Even within migrant communities, there are differences in access. The 3million submits reports to the Independent Monitoring Authority, which monitors the post-Brexit rights of EU and EEA citizens, who theoretically are able to use this information in stakeholder consultations. For non-EU migrants, there are precious few other avenues or bodies that can advocate for them, except for individual charities and NGOs, many of which are already overstretched.

Right-to-work checks for migrants have been in place since 1996—on the Home Office website, it still says that you can check people’s original documents if they don’t have a sharecode. People with pending visas can work on the basis of their previous work conditions, but few employers seem to understand this, and many worry they’ll be penalized. Elisa, who is Polish and has settled status, has been waiting to take up employment for a month because she can’t access her sharecode. Her job is with the National Health Service, and while her employer is understanding, she’s worried about how much longer this will go on. 

“The digital systems are a total failure,” says Ake Achi, who cofounded Migrants at Work, an organization challenging right-to-work checks in the UK. “People are falling into these gaps because there’s nothing to protect us.”

Paper Thin

In 2019, the Home Office set up its Digital, Data & Technology team—its 2024 strategy emphasized that the digitization of the immigration system was already significantly underway—for example, the “Person Centric Data Platform” provides “a single view of individuals to around 700 services, and this single view is crucial to the protection of our borders.” In 2021, it was revealed the Home Office was “hoarding data” on 650 million people, with very few safeguards. Even more recently, the Home Office was told to stop using an automated decision-making algorithm for short-term visas after a legal challenge, which seemed to indirectly discriminate against people from certain nationalities—such as Pakistan or Nigeria—by labeling these countries as “riskier.” 

For people whose immigration status is not as cut and dry—for example, asylum seekers—these digital systems pose challenges too. For a while, Border Force officials and Home Office staff who were monitoring the arrival of asylum seekers to the UK via the Channel were illegally seizing their phones and extracting data from it. Privacy International, which is mounting a legal challenge over this policy, said that the policy was “in line with this government’s (and many others’) efforts to criminalize migration and rob migrants of their basic human rights.” 

People who are on immigration bail and classified as high risk have to wear GPS ankle monitors, which track where they are 24/7. Those who are classified as low risk may soon have to start wearing “smartwatches” with “facial recognition capabilities,” although it’s unclear whether this technology already exists.

“They have the right to use the data accrued from GPS monitoring—to look at that data anonymously, to understand the impact, looking where people have been frequenting and using that to carry out enforcement activity,” says Rudy Schulkind of Bail for Immigration Detainees. “It’s quite a stigmatizing and degrading thing to put people through, and we don’t know where that data is going to go. It’s got incredibly worrying implications for allowing this kind of technology to be normalized.”

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Campaigners and organizers in the sector point out some immediate potential fixes to the digitization of the UK’s hostile environment. “Digitization follows substantive policy priorities,” says Tomlinson. “But just because policy is digital-first doesn’t mean it has to be digital-only. Giving people the option to also have a paper record would make some kind of difference.” Organizations like JCWI have campaigned for people to be given paper records of their visa status. Others have emphasized that the Home Office should put up a data firewall between immigration enforcement authorities and police in cases where a victim is vulnerable—currently, the police refer 204 victims per month to immigration enforcement, including victims of human trafficking and labor exploitation.

In the US, digital systems are a significant part of how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) teams carry out raids on communities. In Canada, a new automated decision-making tool is increasingly being tested on asylum and immigration applications. In the EU, a massive biometric database—which will be used for migration purposes, among others—is set to become the largest police biometrics database in the world, despite concerns from rights advocates and organizations. Digital-by-default immigration systems are slowly becoming the norm. But in many senses, they exacerbate existing issues with the systems that they work within. 

“There’s a reality in which somewhere up to a million of our fellow citizens are too scared to rent a safe home or to seek help from the police when they’re facing domestic abuse, to get a Covid vaccine, and that’s a big result of the hostile environment, whether it’s digital or not,” says Atkinson. “The ‘Papers, please’ society which this has created exists whether it’s on an app that you’re showing to your landlord or on a piece of paper.”

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