Are the UK’s plans to digitise borders well-thought out?

border; digital; travel

The UK Government has recently announced its intention to fully digitise its borders by 2024. Under this scheme, non-British or Irish citizens entering the UK would require electronic permits which would “count people in and count people out”, according to Home Secretary Priti Patel.

This digitisaton would  involve the collection of personal information from applicants before they enter the country, for example by using facial recognition systems which will link to the background of the individual. These new rules are applicable to individuals who visit the UK without a visa, whether to visit their families or friends, attend conferences, conduct independent research or other similar activities.

Whilst moving towards digital may seem like progress, this digital overhaul does, however, come with certain risks: 

  1. Individuals will have to be digitally literate to make an application.While of course, this is the burden of the applicant’s country, it is important for the UK’s immigration system to be flexible to digitally illiterate individuals. According to the report, only individuals with skill sets that can be contributed to the UK will be given priority. However, there may be individuals who may not be comfortable with using technology may have other valuable skill sets. The need for a human element in this framework becomes important here. 
  2. Respect obligations under the Refugee Convention. Refugees who are fleeing from economic, political or environmental threats may have lost access to critical documents or will not have the time or resources to wait for their application to be approved. According to the World Bank’s ID4D database, one billion people across the globe do not have any form of a legally recognised identification. The United Nation’s Human Rights Commission recommends setting up refugee registration systems for getting digital IDs which can help them access to means of income and other benefits. As a State Party to the Refugee Convention, the UK Government’s Digital Borders Program must be flexible to such situations and make decisions on humanitarian grounds. 
  3. Lack of access to proper internet infrastructure. According to a report by Access Now, a digital not-for-profit organisation, there were at least 29 countries that either shut down their internet completely or slowed down access at least 155 times – all this just in the year of 2020. These included shutdowns in India, Bangladesh, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  4. Digital divides.  The gap that exists between populations with respect to access to technological (in this case, internet) infrastructure – are another cause for concern. According to the United Nations, in 2019 87% of developed countries had access to the internet, compared to a mere 19% of the least developed countries. Applicants from these countries should be given due consideration because of their circumstances.
  5. Obligation to respect the right to privacy of the applicants. Since the system is going to collect a lot of personally identifiable information, the Government should explain in detail the steps taken to protect this database as well as the rights of the data subjects. The database should not be used for surveillance purposes. It should decide which jurisdiction’s laws are applicable – that of the applicant’s or its own laws – and what will prevail in case of a conflict. 
  6. Grievance redressal mechanism to be set up. There is enough proof to show the dangers of over-dependence on decisions made by algorithms. This can include exclusion of individuals from benefits that they have rightful access to, or even racial discrimination. An ethics committee and a grievance redressal mechanism should be set up to oversee the decisions made. 
  7. Denial of entry due to “criminal or adverse behaviour”. Entry can be denied to those who have been convicted of heinous crimes. While this is understandable, the Government cannot use this as a blanket rule for denial. Page 21 of the report uses terms like “serious harm” and “conducive to public good” which are extremely broad. There are also specific groups in countries who are arrested and convicted merely because of their membership to that group (like the Black community in the US). Finally, activists or dissenters who are constantly under the radar of the Government are also arrested and convicted based on political motivations. 


While the need for such a system is understandable – the burden of handling illegal migrants may take a toll on the state’s resources: the Government must not blindly adopt a digital system without accounting for these special circumstances. The UK Government thus had to tread these paths very carefully before implementing such a system. 

Sarada Mahesh is a laywer based in Bangalore, due to start the LLM Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at SOAS in September 2021.

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