Are we entering the era of digital discrimination?

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has brought a legal challenge against the Home Office which seeks confirmation of how its visa application streaming algorithm operates. This is just one example of the Home Office’s shift towards the digitisation of immigration control and services and it raises the question: could we be witnessing a shift from analogue to digital discrimination?

Services
Immigration
Type
Update

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has brought a legal challenge against the Home Office which seeks confirmation of how its visa application streaming algorithm operates. The JCWI, which is working with the advocacy group Foxglove, has raised concerns about the “streaming tool” which they understand uses a traffic light system that categorises applicants as green, yellow and red based on nationality. The Home Office maintains that this is merely a “streaming tool” to improve efficiency and that human caseworkers ultimately decide the outcome of an application.

For immigration practitioners, this type of “streaming” based on nationality will not come as a surprise. The Home Office has long used nationality as a basis for determining whether a visa applicant is deemed to be high or low risk. On the whole, visa nationals can be viewed as high risk and non-visa nationals as low risk. In addition, last year’s Immigration White Paper specifically listed examples of “low-risk nationalities” such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, USA, Singapore and South Korea.

Home Office guidance explicitly allows for caseworkers to consider an applicant’s country of residence or nationality when assessing whether they genuinely intend to visit the UK. This can include taking into account the political, economic and security situation of the country in question. For example, a national of a war torn country can be refused a visit visa on this basis alone. We have seen first-hand over the years that these policies are reflected in practice, as nationals of certain countries have a much higher risk of receiving a visa refusal than others. From a pragmatic perspective, clients deemed to be from high risk countries must provide more evidence to rebut the assumptions made by the Home Office about their intentions based on their nationality.

While this type of discrimination in assessing visa applications has existed for some time, could we be witnessing a shift from analogue to digital discrimination? Government bodies and businesses are becoming increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence to streamline their processes, taking an element of the decision making process out of the hands of humans. It will be interesting to see what impact this could have on decision making and whether this will result in a further level of detachment from the human being making a visa application.

This is just one example of how the Home Office are progressing towards the digitisation of immigration control and services. We have already seen the expansion of the electronic border, which relies heavily on ePassport gates, and the introduction of electronic immigration statuses, such as settled or pre-settled status.

Transparency in the decision making process is essential to an immigration system that is fair to all and so we welcome the challenge, in the hope that further information will be made available to the public about the Home Office’s streaming tool.


All content on this page is correct as of October 31, 2019.