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Why the migrants’ rights sector should care about big data


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Last month, UN special rapporteur on racism Professor Tendayi Achiume raised concerns about the impact of digital technologies on human rights. Achiume’s comments come at a time when governments are relying more and more on digital tools to control migration.

In the UK, we’ve already seen the government use data for the surveillance and control of migrants and refugees as part of its hostile environment measures to deter irregular migrants. This has had a detrimental effect on the migrant population, causing people to avoid using health care services and reporting crime for fear of arrest, detention or deportation.

The use of new technologies in migration management raises a number of issues. As Petra Molnar of the University of Toronto has written: “The way that technology is used is a useful lens through which to highlight State practices and raise questions about democracy, power and accountability”. In this context, how can migrants’ rights organisations best protect the rights and interests of their clients?

Open Rights Group has been trying to identify ways in which we can work alongside the migrants’ rights sector to tackle digital rights and privacy issues. Earlier this year, we carried out a joint survey with Privacy International to gain a better understanding of the needs and capacities of the sector to deal with privacy, personal data, digital and technological changes. Survey respondents included frontline service providers, legal advisers and policy, advocacy and campaigning organisations.

The results are detailed in our recently published report Immigration, Data and technology: Needs and Capacities of the Immigration Sector.

The survey revealed that the main priority areas for the migrants’ rights sector are:

  • building the capacity of NGOs to better support their clients
  • building the evidence base and documenting harms and lived experiences of migrants to engage in policy-making
  • building the capacity of NGOs to raise awareness among the general public, in national and international fora, and engage in successful advocacy

Survey respondents gave examples of some of the main issues that they have encountered in their work. These included disproportionate data collection and the use of data for purposes other than it was originally given for.

Although automated decision-making was the least frequently encountered issue, it is an emerging concern. This summer Foxglove and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants successfully challenged the Home Office’s use of an automated system to decide visa applications, which was found to be discriminating on the basis of nationality.

In terms of how we might equip the sector to better respond to the impact data, privacy and new technologies are having on immigration policy — and in turn more effectively advocate for their clients on these issues — the organisations surveyed asked for the following types of support:

  • training
  • information sheets on rights, risks and how to counter them
  • policy briefs on data protection and the obligations of government and the private sector
  • support for advising clients on their digital rights and how to safeguard them

The survey findings and conversations Open Rights Group continues to have with migrants’ rights organisations show that the sector recognises data and privacy as growing concerns in immigration policy. We are keen to engage further with the migrant and refugee sector and work together to tackle the issues raised in the survey. In addition to challenging the immigration exemption which restricts the data protection rights of migrants and refugees, we have raised concerns about the NHSX Covid-19 App and this month co-ordinated an open letter to the Digital Secretary warning about the impact the National Data Strategy, in its current form, is likely to have on migrants.

The findings of the survey have also enabled us to provide recommendations on how to increase the capacity of the migrants’ rights sector and areas for future work. We look forward to supporting the sector to champion the digital and privacy rights of migrants and refugees. If organisations are interested: immigration@openrightsgroup.org.

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Sahdya Darr

Sahdya Darr is Immigration Policy Manager at Open Rights Group.