UK’s anti-migrant Hostile Environment policy dehumanises us all

Surveillance and control measures deployed to reinforce this policy show the UK government does not consider migrants as deserving of the same human rights protections as others.

A light projection on a Home Office Immigration reporting centre reads 'watching migrants 24/7'
Lunar House, a UK Home Office immigration reporting centre in London, where charities staged a light projection on June 13, 2022 [Light projection designed by Holly Mina Jones/ Courtesy of Privacy International]

For 10 years, the UK Home Office’s Hostile Environment policy has been treating migrants as undeserving of the same fundamental rights as other individuals – in particular their right to privacy.

The name of the policy says it all – through inhumane and tyrannical practices, people were, and still are, meant to be deterred from entering the UK, or encouraged to leave. But the past decade has also been one of resistance – resistance by those subjected to the arbitrary whim of the Home Office, and by communities and organisations exposing and challenging the arbitrary seizures of mobile phones, the collection of country-of-birth data in schools across England, or the sharing of crime victims’ data between the police and the Home Office.

In the same week as that of the first deportation flight to Rwanda exporting this hostile environment, organisations across the UK are standing up to these 10 years of cruel hostility that build on further decades of oppression of migrants.

To enforce this policy and reinforce its hostile grip, surveillance and control measures were deployed, measures that show the UK government does not consider migrants – even those who came to the UK a generation ago – as deserving of the same human rights protections as others.

One such surveillance measure is the rollout of GPS ankle tagging of migrants released on immigration bail – a tracking system that gathers location data 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You know Google Maps? It’s the same, except here location data is collected by the government for punitive surveillance purposes, rather than to guide you around town.

GPS location can reveal profoundly intimate and sensitive details of someone’s life – trips to the abortion clinic, the gay bar, the anarchist bookstore, the synagogue, church or mosque, the strip club, etc. This is a seismic change in the surveillance of migrants, which previously relied on “radio frequency tags”, that simply measure the distance between the tag and a base station placed in the subject’s home. Does the Home Office need all this additional location data to monitor compliance with bail conditions? No. Does it use it for all kinds of other punitive reasons? Yes.

The purported main purpose of this huge extension of surveillance powers is to better monitor bail breaches and absconding. But absconding rates are extremely low and stable – in 2020, only 1 percent of people released from immigration detention tried to abscond. Data obtained by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) shows that of the people granted bail from February 2020 to March 2021 (of which there were more than 7,000), just 43 people absconded – less than 0.56 percent.

Individuals coming to the UK do not need a coercive incentive to comply with their bail conditions. Ninety-nine percent will comply anyway. These new powers are therefore draconian and vastly disproportionate.

What is more, the Home Office has granted itself the right – without any lawful basis, only through internal policies – to use location data collected from GPS tags to inform its decisions on individuals’ asylum and immigration applications. That is a breathtaking power. It means every single movement a tagged individual makes can be used against them to refuse their claims to have an established, private and family life in the UK.

Take a look at your location history over the last year – can you really account for and explain all of it? In the words of Cardinal Richelieu, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” This is a clear abuse of power, with ripe potential for violating human rights law – not only privacy rights, but also freedom of association, movement and expression, as people know their daily activities may now or in the future be used to judge whether they deserve to build a life here or if they are unsuitable for our precious and orderly country.

GPS tagging also affects people’s mental health, family relationships, and many parts of the minute details of how an individual chooses to live their life. People report that ankle tags affect how they dress, where they go and what they do, their prayers and how they care for their children. Many report feeling stigmatised and being constantly aware of the judgmental looks of others. Despite medical advice to the contrary, vulnerable people, including torture survivors, are being tagged. In the words of someone who has to wear one, “Sometimes I just feel isolated even more, I just want to isolate myself. I’m on this tag and then, my anxiety kicks in. Sometimes I don’t even want to be around people because I’m the only one on it.”

There is also evidence that many of the tags suffer from defects that deplete their batteries every few hours – such that people have to plug themselves into a wall multiple times a day to avoid the anxiety-inducing vibration and red light flashes the tag makes when running low on battery. Even worse, a tag running out of battery can constitute a breach of bail conditions, resulting in civil or criminal penalties or affecting their immigration record – just because the technology deployed to spy on them is flawed.

Our fear is that in 2032 we will find ourselves marking 20 years of the hostile environment, with new tech “solutions” to migration that further dehumanise people – such as facial recognition in border surveillance, smart watches for location monitoring, and dynamic risk assessments for visa applicants – reducing their stories, their lived experiences, their traumas, to thousands of data points that will only ever tell the Home Office the story they want to hear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.