Migrants in UK face 'degrading' surveillance ankle tags

A British policeman is seen looking over a migrant boat as a Union Jack Flag waves in the background in this illustration. November 18, 2022

A British policeman is seen looking over a migrant boat as a Union Jack Flag waves in the background in this illustration. November 18, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nura Ali

What’s the context?

Britain has ramped up electronic tagging of migrants, raising concerns over privacy and its impact on vulnerable asylum seekers

  • UK tackles illegal migration with surveillance tech
  • Record numbers arriving on small boats to claim asylum
  • Pilot scheme expands use of GPS tracking devices

LONDON - After two years being held in a British immigration detention centre, Mimi was so desperate to be released that she agreed to wear an electronic ankle tag. But her sense of freedom was short-lived.

Two months later, she said she attempted suicide because of the stress of being monitored while wearing the tag.

"I couldn't do anything because I didn't want to have this tag showing. It was horrific," said Mimi, asked to be identified by a pseudonym as she awaits a decision on her asylum claim almost a decade later.

"I was already beyond stressed - this was just throwing me over the edge. One day, it all became way too much for me."

Mimi, who is in her 40s, said she believes her parents came to Britain from the Caribbean after World War Two but she has been unable to prove her nationality and is officially stateless.

"I know nothing about my background. I was abandoned in sexual exploitation and modern slavery from a very young age," she told Context in a video interview.

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Britain has ramped up its use of electronic tags on people detained over their immigration status as it seeks to fulfil a long-standing pledge to cut immigration, one of the drivers behind the country's 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

Migration hit a record high of 504,000 this year, with a surge in international students and arrivals from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. This figure does not include those arriving irregularly on small boats across the English Channel.

"People find it incredibly degrading and stigmatising," said Rudy Schulkind, research and policy manager at Bail for Immigration Detainees, which provides free legal representation to people held in detention across Britain.

"Having to walk down the street and have people notice that they're wearing a tag, seeing them as a dangerous or violent person, (it's an) incredibly painful thing to go through."

Dehumanising

As the numbers of people fleeing war, poverty, climate disasters and other events reach record levels worldwide, states are turning to digital technologies including ankle tags and biometric data to toughen borders and monitor migrants.

Amid an increase in anti-immigration rhetoric in Britain, it became mandatory in 2016 to tag all foreign nationals facing deportation - a move that rights groups say is dehumanising and infringes on people's privacy.

Electronic tags have traditionally been fitted on individuals involved in the criminal justice system so that the police and courts can monitor their location and compliance with orders and to deter them from absconding.

Under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, people who knowingly arrive in Britain without permission can face up to four years in jail - unfairly criminalising migrants seeking asylum as refugees, rights campaigners say.

"Our government has for the last couple of years just repeated that refugees are illegal immigrants, that they arrive illegally, that they will be treated as criminals," said Clare Moseley, founder of migrant charity Care4Calais.

"Many of these people are innocent victims of wars and persecution."

Monitored with tags

In August 2021, the prison service extended the use of GPS monitoring to people on immigration bail, which means they have been freed from detention while their application to remain in Britain is assessed.

As a result, the number of migrants being tagged on immigration bail almost doubled between January and September to over 2,100 people - or 16% of all individuals being monitored with tags, the latest government data shows.

"We're seeing an increased watching of migrant communities," said Zehrah Hasan, advocacy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which campaigns for reform of the immigration system.

"We're seeing this expansive system that limits people's freedoms and their right to dignity and respect by either incarcerating them and monitoring them within the detention estate, or monitoring them in their communities."

Hasan previously worked as an immigration and asylum barrister and said some of her clients felt they had no choice but to be tagged.

"It's an oppressive kind of system where people are subject to that as a price for their freedom - but it's not full freedom, really, if they're still being monitored," she said.

"People are almost compelled to accept these very stringent and intrusive conditions because of the horrors of immigration detention," she said, referring to the prison-like centres that nearly 25,000 people pass through each year.

Last year, the Home Office switched from using radio frequency tags, that log when a person is at home, to GPS devices which track the wearer's location constantly.

Adding to their repertoire of tracking systems, the Home Office in May awarded a six-million-pound ($7 million) contract to Buddi, a British tech company selling wearable devices that can record biometric data such as fingerprints.

In emailed comments, the Home Office said only foreign national offenders awaiting deportation would be monitored this way to ensure they do not abscond.

Buddi did not respond to requests for comment.

Lucie Audibert, a legal officer at digital rights group Privacy International, said these tracking devices generate "troves of data" and are a huge intrusion of privacy.

"There's this massive expansion of surveillance that is creating troves of data. The necessity and proportionality of such an intrusive tracking measure is really the problem here."

Arrivals by small boats

With the promise that Brexit would enable Britain to take back control of its borders, the government is under pressure to deal with a surge in migrants making dangerous journeys across the English Channel from France, with dozens drowning en route.

Over 40,000 irregular migrants crossed the English Channel on small boats so far this year, government data shows.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson had hoped to deport those arriving illegally to Rwanda. But the first planned deportation flight in June was blocked by an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights and is now under judicial review.

In June, the Home Office launched a 12-month pilot scheme to expand electronic tagging to 600 asylum seekers who have arrived via "unnecessary and dangerous routes", in particular "aimed at deterring arrivals by small boats".

The Home Office said the scheme will test whether monitoring helps to improve regular contact with migrants to progress their asylum claims.

It will also track the rate of absconding and examine whether tagging helps restore contact or locate asylum seekers for deportation or detention, it said.

A freedom of information request by Brian Dikoff of the campaign group Migrants Organise found that only 3% of people who were released from detention absconded in 2019, and 1% in 2020.

"We think it's vastly disproportionate," said Schulkind of Bail for Immigration Detainees.

"They've never committed any offences, they've never absconded, so it doesn't seem necessary to tag people. They're still going to stay in touch and they're not going to run away because that would jeopardise their asylum claim."

This story is part of a series on the impact of surveillance tech on migrants and refugees around the world. Read the series.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor, Editing by Sonia Elks and Katy Migiro)


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