openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The UK’s immigration plans are a gift to criminal gangs, traffickers and exploiters

Home secretary Priti Patel seems set on returning public opinion on migration to pre-2016 levels

Zoe Gardner
28 May 2021, 3.25pm
Priti Patel has accused those who disagree with her stance on immigration of 'seeking to sow dissent'
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

On Monday 24 May, home secretary Priti Patel laid out the next steps in her department’s plan to ‘overhaul’ the UK immigration system. It followed proposals earlier this year to rip up the UK’s refugee protection principles. The next phase of her plans focuses on work, study and family migration routes to the UK and, significantly, seeks to digitalise a huge number of Home Office processes, including ‘hostile environment’ status checks when accessing both public and private services.

Public attitudes towards immigration have in fact significantly softened in the last few years, and overall the immigration has dropped down the public’s list of top priority issues. In this context, Patel had an opportunity to make the sensible, humane changes that are needed, especially when focusing on the relatively popular groups of skilled migrant workers and students.

Instead, she is dedicated to returning the public conversation to where it was before the 2016 Brexit referendum, by rehashing old announcements, throwing in some additional technological fantasies, and attacking anyone who disagrees with her approach as simply “seeking to sow dissent”.

This week she railed against politicians who, she claimed, had been indifferent to public opinion and who had argued that “even raising the topic of immigration was racist”.

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While Patel positions herself as the champion of supposedly unheard migration-sceptic voices, this drawing of battle lines between the “silent majority” on one hand and the “activists” on the other is a transparent attempt to stoke the cooling embers of public anxiety around migration issues, as a distraction from her department and wider government’s failings.

In fact, it is Patel who is out of touch with where the public are at on migration issues. Recent research has found, for example, that the public that Patel claims to be listening to, actually strongly supports birthright citizenship – in other words, ending the injustice of people born in this country facing deportation to a place they may never have been. But far from fixing what she calls the “out of date, broken system” of citizenship, her plan fails to engage at all with this relatively straightforward and popular change, and instead merely tinkers around the edges of the reforms that are needed.

The Windrush Lessons Learned Review recommended a new ethical framework for decision-making, better compliance monitoring and more face-to-face contact with applicants – none of which are prioritised in the new plans. Instead the government unconvincingly issues promises to report on its response to the review “at a suitable juncture”.

Last August, the Home Office was forced to scrap an algorithm that replicated decades of institutionally racist biases

The Home Office also intends to increase the use of facial recognition software – but does not address concerns around the racial biases that such technologies often reproduce. Just last August, the Home Office was forced to scrap an algorithm used for making decisions on visa applications, which was designed to “streamline” systems. It soon became clear that the tool replicated decades of institutionally racist biases, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software.

The rise of ‘black box’ automated decision-making systems in any area of the immigration system will entrench existing problems. It will become more difficult to challenge or overturn decisions – pretty alarming, given the Home Office’s history of incorrect and cruel decision making. On appeal, half of all asylum decisions are found to have been wrongfully refused for example.

While the plan provides fast-tracked pathways for Grammy winners and Olympic athletes, the lower paid and most vulnerable are increasingly targeted for immigration enforcement. The policies announced this week put more migrants at risk of losing their right to live in the UK and being pushed into the hands of those willing to exploit them.

Responding to Patel’s speech, Sara Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, warned: “The proposals could make it harder to identify victims of slavery and modern trafficking and may create greater vulnerability for people who may end up in slavery and trafficking.”

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The deal the UK struck on migration with India at the beginning of May encapsulates the problem. Patel boasted the deal provides opportunities for legal migration to “thousands” of Indian citizens. This sounds impressive, but refers to a scheme that is capped at just 3,000 per year. And those 3,000 will be entitled to remain in the UK for only two years, with no option to extend their stay, even if they have put down roots or built families. It is a conveyor belt approach, bringing young workers in, but trapping them in temporary status and ensuring that they are never fully established in our communities.

It’s a similar story elsewhere. Agricultural workers and domestic workers are now entitled to just six months’ leave to remain, after which they must leave regardless of their circumstances. Both schemes have been found to produce a serious risk of exploitation and trafficking. Other categories of migrants generally receive 30 months’ leave, which must be renewed repeatedly before gaining a permanent status.

When visa pathways are inflexible and there are limited legal means to extend your stay, some people are forced to continue living in the UK without being able to renew their visa. At the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, our recent research shows that despite the government’s rhetoric on illegal entry, most people become undocumented in the UK through no fault of their own. Often they are unable to renew or extend a visa – this could be because of extortionate fees, a breakdown in a personal relationship, poor mental health or simply an error from the Home Office. Once that situation arises, they are denied access to necessary services through the hostile environment policy and are exposed to exploitation and abuse.

Presented as a way to streamline and modernise the department, the new ‘digital only’ immigration system is likely to be another Home Office disaster. Its previous record on such projects was decried by the Public Accounts Committee as a “litany of failure”, which makes the proposals’ 2024 deadline seem overly ambitious. Some of the border technologies presented as new have been announced repeatedly since 2018 and were due to be operational years ago.

These repeated announcements are nothing more than headline chasers intended to distract the public, at a time when the government needs to draw attention away from numerous scandals.

It is abundantly clear that the Home Office under Patel’s leadership will not be able to introduce an ambitious digitalisation programme and protect people’s rights. If the government was serious about a programme of this nature, it would first resolve the poor decision-making, discrimination and hostility at the heart of the Home Office.

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