Protecting migrants at borders and beyond

The use of data and new technologies are driving a revolution in immigration enforcement, and affected people are going to be at greater risk.

Gustave Deghilage_11 June 2014

Increasingly every interaction that migrants have with a third-party, be it humanitarian or governments agencies, requires the processing of their personal data. The use of this data and new technologies are driving a revolution in immigration enforcement, and affected people are going to be at greater risk.

What is the problem

Immigration enforcement is having a revolution in data and tech, and affected people are going to be at greater risk. New types of data (e.g. social media), from new sources (e.g. mobile phones and digital data trails), and new sharing arrangements across government bodies - those with and those without an immigration enforcement mandate (e.g. the so-called hostile environment in the UK), are already having profound impacts on immigration enforcement.

By exploiting these technological developments, government authorities, at the national level and sometimes as part of multi-lateral agreements, are building a highly data-driven approach, which seeks to use invasive and potentially flawed digital data about people to make life-changing decisions about them while extending status checks to daily interactions in society. Further, new types of data processing aimed at tracking and identifying migrants will place them at a significant disadvantage of seeking protection and assistance, access to justice, accessing social protection programmes, and enjoying equal employment opportunities, etc. 

Companies play essential roles in providing a variety of tech and data exploitation solutions and services to governments. There are also companies who are directly feeding data about migrants into the state surveillance and data exploitation ecosystem because migrants use their products and services to access information or communicate with their loved ones. Finally, there are companies that accumulate and aggregate data on the public generally, which governments are increasingly purchasing or mandating access.

Not only are such data-driven immigration policies leading to discriminatory treatment of people and undermining peoples' dignity, but technological flaws result in unfair decision making, particularly when automated. 

Compounded, these practices mean that migrants are bearing the burden of the new systems and losing agency in their migration experience, particularly when their fate is being put in the hands of systems driven by data processing and tech innovation. 

What is the solution

Government and public authorities responsible for immigration must stop using invasive techniques for immigration control and they must be transparent about the new ways in which technologies are being used to make decisions about migrants, including through the expansion of databases, watchlists, and the types of data now being used. Immigration policies and practices must be a more humane and be designed and deployed within a legal framework based on the principles of fairness, accessibility, and respect for human rights.

Government and public authorities that do not have an immigration enforcement mandate but that hold data about migrants, i.e. health care and education providers, must not facilitate the work of immigration control through opaque data sharing and interoperability agreements. 

Companies must stop supplying invasive techniques to governments that use such tools to implement immigration policies that are discriminatory and curtail the rights of migrants. There must be transparent procurement and due diligence processes to ensure that the solutions they are providing to governments are not used to violate the rights of migrants.

What PI is doing

PI has been investigating and exposing the use of data & technology in the migration context, and we aim to build the knowledge and expertise of organisations and groups which advocate for the rights of migrants of to have a clear holistic picture of the threats and risks faced by migrants at various instances of the migrant path:

  • In conflict-affected regions and those experiencing humanitarian emergencies, we are working with leading humanitarian and development actors, from funders to frontline services and assistance providers, to help them understand and mitigate against some of the threats posed by new data-intensive systems which put migrants at risk.
  • At the border, we are documenting the use of surveillance technologies used to extract data from devices and sweep it up from social media platforms and others available sources of data, both private and public, as part of regular migration processes, i.e. for visas and asylum applications.
  • Beyond the border, we are investigating how immigration authorities spy on people's communications, the vast new databases being built to track and identify people, the increasing data sharing arrangements and interoperability across systems, and the industry making millions from selling data, analysis, and infrastructure to immigration enforcement authorities.
  • Building new allies to tell a positive story: Finally working in collaboration with migrant rights organisations, we are adding our voice to an existing public narrative to demand respect for the rights of migrants as they experience increasing degrading and dehumanising barriers and hurdles to migrate as a result of the data exploitation and surveillance immigration ecosystem.