Anti-surveillance advocacy group Privacy International has filed a complaint against the UK Home Office for introducing GPS tracking devices for migrants entering the country via irregular routes. Privacy International says the practice is excessive, unlawful and threatens the fundamental rights to privacy to which everyone in the UK is entitled.
“These are just people looking for a new life in the UK,” said Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International. “Therefore, the need to monitor them and monitor them in this way is highly questionable, and I doubt the effectiveness of that either.”
The devices, which are bulky ankle bracelets of the same type used in criminal justice systems for decades, monitor migrants’ movements around the clock. Anyone on bail in the UK can be tagged indefinitely.
The Home Office unveiled a new 12-month pilot to experiment with tagging people arriving on small boats in June, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said migrants could not simply “disappear” in the country. The Interior Ministry has said it intends to use the tags to prevent migrants heading to offshore prisons in Rwanda from disappearing – although the escape rate is down to just 1% in 2020, according to a freedom of information request from Migrants Organise.
Privacy International argues that the practice of tagging migrants lacks the adequate safeguards that are in place when the devices are used in the criminal justice system. They add that the devices can be both inaccurate and intrusive. The privacy rights charity filed complaints with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Forensic Science Regulator.
Privacy and migration advocates say the Home Office can use the location data to screen migrants who claim to remain in the UK due to family ties with the country – to assess whether they are really visiting relatives. They also say migrants are traumatized by the surveillance operation, stigmatized and – in some cases – housebound and afraid to engage with the outside world.
The use of GPS tagging on migrants has already been extensively tested in the United States under a program called Alternatives to Detention, which was expanded under President Joe Biden. The US government argues that placing people under electronic surveillance is friendlier and less brutal than incarceration, and that more people are being kept out of immigration detention centers. But immigrants in the US say the tags are dehumanizing.
“It’s like being in prison again,” a US asylum seeker told us in May. He described crying “tears of joy” when the bracelet was removed from his body after wearing it for three months.
The argument that the markings are a humane alternative to imprisoning migrants is reflected in British policy, according to Audibert. But, she says, it’s a false premise: “Any alternative to incarceration in the criminal justice system has never resulted in a reduction in prison numbers. It has only increased the size of the controlled population.”
The Home Office recently expanded the criteria for who can be flagged to include anyone traveling via irregular routes, such as small boats, entering the UK – a practice which is now a criminal offense in the country. Earlier this month, a report in the Guardian revealed that the Home Office was introducing new “face recognition smartwatches” to complement ankle tags for migrants. While the smartwatches are detachable, migrants convicted of a crime will have to scan their faces up to five times a day to make sure they’re still wearing them.
The Home Office stressed in a statement that the tags are used on “foreign criminals” but did not mention its pilot project to also tag asylum seekers with GPS ankle bracelets.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Since August 2021, the Home Office has successfully tagged over 2,500 foreign criminals, reassuring victims that their perpetrators cannot escape the law and will be removed from the UK as soon as possible. Since January 2019, the government has removed over 10,000 foreign criminals.”
According to research by Monish Bhatia, Lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck University of London, the use of GPS tracking has serious implications for the mental health of the wearer. In a report published last year, he describes how many people who are tagged experience it as imprisonment and punishment. They say the tag makes them feel like criminals and that if their tag is discovered they will have to live with the stigma. The tag means they are often reluctant to engage with their community and engage in everyday activities like exercise for fear of revealing their tag, and can end up isolating themselves in a sort of self-inflicted house arrest because they don’t want to be followed .
Bhatia argued that the practice of tagging had no purpose other than to exercise power over asylum seekers and minorities. “It’s just for control — and it’s discriminatory. I’ve called it race surveillance more than a few times, and I’ll stick with that term to describe this technology,” he said.
The UK has deployed a massive surveillance and technology program in recent years to try to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel, at a cost to UK taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Audibert described how the GPS policy is part of this deterrent strategy and part of the Home Office’s overall intention to prevent migrants from making dangerous journeys across the water in small, fragile vessels.
“They’re pouring millions of pounds into this crazy invasive technology,” said Audibert, who described how most migrants had no interest in violating their bail conditions. “It criminalizes people who aren’t criminals.”
Frankie Vetch contributed to this report.