Immigration

Algorithms and outsourcing are failing the UK’s immigration system

BY Olivia Bridge   /  5 August 2019

Theresa May’s “hostile” vision for migrants has now, almost a decade on, successfully woven itself into every blueprinted immigration law change and has infiltrated the administrative hurdles visa applicants must clear when coming to the UK.

It has been a long-held view that Home Office caseworkers handle sensitive applications with overzealous scrutiny that often appears bereft of any human feeling, especially when one considers the government once worked to the tune of “deport first, appeal later”.

However, it has emerged that this is literally the practice deployed by the Home Office: shredding any responsibility and accountability, the Government has recruited private outsourcing companies, VFS Global and Sopra Steria, as well as computer algorithms, to deal with visa applications on their behalf.

Ironically positioned as a convenience at a cost, the outsourced systems are inundated with flaws ranging from a lack of appointments, dispersed and minimal accessible sites, contradictory correspondence, prohibitively exorbitant fees and “Kafkaesque” customer services. Yet the companies are raking in millions in profit, prompting the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) and numerous MPs to call for an investigation to be conducted into the partnerships and their “shoddy service” as claimed by Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott.

Prior to Sopra Steria being awarded a £91 million contract to take over, visa applicants were able to register their biometric information in most local post offices across the country. Now, however, sites are increasingly limited and are inevitably buckling under the pressure to meet demand since a mere six of fifty-one offices are able to offer free appointments. These are stationed few and far between in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff and Croydon.

Although Sopra Steria boasts making more than £2 million between January and April this year, their services are plunging people into precarious situations in which they are torn between destitution to pay for an appointment or deportation should they wait for a free slot and fall into an illegal status in the interim. Migrants robbed of the opportunity to secure a slot whatsoever in their local area are forced to trek for miles across the UK – and are then expected to pay through the nose for the privilege. Most appointments start at a minimum of £60 but easily rack up to £200 for an off-peak slot and a whopping £600 for a 24-hour turnaround. That’s a misnomer too. The Financial Times reported in December that urgent applications faced week-long delays. One Freedom of Information request found that more than 8,000 bookings were made for a premium service in the first quarter of the year while a third of users processed in Croydon had to pay for an appointment. In April, dozens seeking British Citizenship and residency rights in the UK were turned away, despite many having travelled for 60 miles or more, due to a systems failure.

Lawyers also warn that the systems are compiled of ambiguously worded questions and outright incorrect information which are setting up applicants to fail. The services are leading migrants down a rabbit hole and abandoning them in a “maze of misinformation”, only to be met with a conveyer belt of generic, templated and repetitive customer service responses. This is a grave cause for concern since the government’s latest initiative to make a crackdown on overstayers means those that dip into an illegal grey area through no fault of their own will be ineligible for British Citizenship for at least 10 years.

The revelations emerge as UK universities warn this week that the services are unable to handle the current volume of students renewing their visas which does not bode well for the 40,000 expected influx in September of foreign youths securing their Tier 4 Student Visa.

Exacerbating matters, the firms have a notorious and shady history dating as far back as 2005 when a member of the public discovered VFS Global were breaching data protection laws. A similar instance happened again in 2007 and 2015, prompting the Information Commissioner’s Office to discredit the government for failing to adhere to the Data Protection Act and basic IT security. The Foreign Office even vowed to cease the partnership entirely – which is a move that evidently never happened – after one Channel 4 investigation unveiled at least 50,000 Indian applicants had had their private data exposed. The use of sequential reference numbers by the company had meant that anyone could easily access another applicant’s account, viewing their date of birth, passport details and home address.

The problems at the Home Office go further than outsourcing. The department has also been using discriminatory computer algorithms in a traffic light system to determine whether people migrating to the UK can stay. Although the government vehemently denies that the algorithms refuse applicants based on race, it assesses a candidate’s age and country of origin, and is perhaps the reason behind why so many African academics are experiencing visit visa refusals at a disproportionate rate lately. It is also perhaps why the Home Office has a 10% error rate when processing applications which is of particular concern to EU nationals registering for Settled Status. Incidentally, despite being promised a fee waiver to register, EU citizens are also being processed through Sopra Steria and are facing the extortionate fees and a similarly frustrating digitalised system that’s fraught with technical difficulties.

One similar algorithm used in the US was found to have absorbed discriminatory biases and, despite David Bolt the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration forewarning against the use of the algorithms in 2017 since it becomes a “de facto decision-making tool”, the Home Office continued to use them anyway.

The problem the use of such systems creates is that the Home Office axe the sparingly minute amounts of human engagement needed to assess an individual’s case, rinses itself of any accountability and ends up relying on a computer that is racially prejudiced.

Although dependence on artificial intelligence and technological advances continues to climb, the use of computer algorithms to curb time while private outsourcing demolishes responsibility in their persistent pursuit for profit – while the lives of innocent people hang in the balance – seems, at best, wholly inappropriate, and at worst, institutionally racist.

Olivia Bridge is a political correspondent and commentator for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading immigration lawyers.


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