February 21, 2024


It's the Technology

The Dangerous Digital Creep of Britain's ‘Hostile Environment’

The Dangerous Digital Creep of Britain’s ‘Hostile Environment’

In 2019, Anna moved from Poland to the UK with her partner and three children. Soon after they settled into their home and new life, he became violent. Anna attempted to leave, taking their children with her. But when she contacted her local council’s social services, they asked her about her immigration status. There was a problem.


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Anna—a pseudonym, for privacy and safety reasons—had a valid visa under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), which required European citizens to register with the British immigration authorities after Britain voted to leave the EU in 2017. But when she tried to prove it, she couldn’t. She had never received a text message or a physical letter saying that she had settled status. Anna went back into the household with her children and her abuser, with nowhere else to go.

When Anna got in touch with the immigration authorities, they put her through to a technical team that, she says, rarely called her back and seemed to constantly be too busy, with long waiting times. Once she got through to the helpline, they confirmed that she had made a valid application (and that her children had settled status, so they had the right to remain in the UK). But they couldn’t give her access to her account. Without it, she couldn’t generate a sharecode—digital proof of her immigration status that would allow her to access social services, get a job, or rent an apartment.

After another serious incident, the police finally gave her abuser an injunction. Anna left the house, but she lost a job offer because she couldn’t prove her immigration status. She couldn’t apply for benefits because she didn’t have proof that she was also actively working. In March 2022, she received confirmation through a charity that was helping her that she had presettled status. But she still hasn’t been contacted by the UK’s Home Office directly—and still has no access to her sharecode.

Anna’s story is shocking. But as the UK’s immigration and policing agency, the Home Office, emphasizes a “digital-by-default” approach to border management, these stories are becoming increasingly common. Earlier this year, the Home Office released its “New Plan for Immigration,” which laid out the increasing digitization of the UK’s immigration system. “We will have a seamless, fully digital, end-to end journey for customers interacting with the immigration system by 2025,” the Home Office said in its plan. 

Currently, migrants and people applying for new visas in the UK are encouraged to use an app to submit their biometrics, including scans of their face; to fill out forms online; and to prove their immigration status with sharecodes. Technology is playing a larger role in immigration systems around the world, affecting the ways borders can be enforced in a physical space and borders and immigration status are maintained once people enter a country. For migrants, this increasing digitization of the immigration system makes it possible for the border to be anywhere and everywhere, spreading into all corners of their lives. 

A Hostile Environment

Public interest in migration is significant in the UK, with more than 50 percent of Britons polled saying it was one of the most important issues facing the union. The Home Office has made multiple justifications for its move to digital status: that it will be better for older people who won’t have to keep track of a piece of paper, that it could enhance security for vulnerable people who might otherwise have their documents taken away by nefarious actors (for example, traffickers or exploitative employers), and that there will be sufficient time for people to fully transition to digital status. But campaigners, organizations, and lawyers working with migrant communities around the UK say these digital systems are already rife with problems, many of which will only get worse.

“Do we have an immigration system that treats people as full humans, that is responsive to people’s circumstances and is based on common sense?” asks Mary Atkinson of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a UK-based nonprofit. “A digital system might work to make the system that it’s implementing quicker, but there will always be problems, glitches that cause anguish and real pain.”