A complaint has been filed by the anti-surveillance advocacy group Privacy International against the U.K. Home Office, which is rolling out GPS tracking devices for migrants entering the country through irregular routes. Privacy International says the practice is excessive, unlawful and threatens the fundamental rights to privacy to which everyone in the United Kingdom is entitled.
“These are just individuals who are seeking a new life in the U.K.,” said Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International. “And so the necessity of surveilling them and monitoring in this way is highly questionable, and I question the effectiveness of it as well.”
The devices, which are bulky ankle bracelets of the same type that have been used in the criminal justice system for decades, monitor migrants’ movements 24/7. Anyone who is on immigration bail in the U.K. can be tagged, for an unlimited amount of time.
The Home Office unveiled a new 12-month pilot to experiment with tagging people arriving on small boats in June, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson said migrants couldn’t be allowed to simply “vanish” into the country. The Home Office have said they intend to use the tags to stop migrants bound for offshore detention centers in Rwanda from disappearing — despite absconding rates being as low as 1% in 2020, according to a Freedom of Information request by Migrants Organise.
Privacy International argues that the practice of tagging migrants lacks the proper safeguards that are in place when the devices are used in the criminal justice system. They add that the devices can be inaccurate as well as 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 check up on migrants who claim to remain in the U.K. on the basis of family ties with the country — to assess whether they really do visit their relatives. They also say the surveillance measure leaves migrants traumatized, stigmatized and — in some cases — housebound, afraid to engage with the outside world.
The use of GPS tagging on migrants has already been trialed extensively in the U.S., under a program known as “Alternatives to Detention,” which has been expanded under President Joe Biden. The U.S. government argues that placing people under electronic surveillance is kinder and less brutal than imprisonment, and keeps more people out of immigration detention centers. But immigrants in the U.S. say the tags are dehumanizing.
“You feel like you’re in prison again,” a U.S. asylum seeker told us in May. He described crying “tears of joy” when the bracelet was removed from his body after three months’ wear.
The argument that the tags are a humane alternative to detaining migrants has been mirrored in the U.K.’s policy, according to Audibert. But, she says, it’s a false premise: “Every alternative to detention in the criminal justice system has never reduced prison numbers. It has just expanded the size of the population that was controlled.”
The Home Office recently expanded the criteria for who is eligible to be tagged to include anyone who arrives in the U.K. via irregular routes, such as small boats — 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 rolling out new “facial recognition smartwatches” to migrants as a complement to the ankle tags. The smartwatches, though removable, require migrants convicted of a criminal offense to scan their face up to five times per day to ensure they’re still wearing them.
The Home Office, in a statement, emphasized the tags will be used on “foreign national criminals” but made no mention of its pilot scheme to also tag asylum seekers with GPS ankle bracelets.
A Home Office spokesperson 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 U.K. at the earliest opportunity. Since January 2019, the Government has removed over 10,000 foreign criminals.”
The use of GPS tracking has severe effects on the mental health of the wearer, according to research by Monish Bhatia, a criminology lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. He describes, in a report published last year, how many people who are tagged experience it as imprisonment and punishment. They say the tag makes them feel like criminals, and that they have to live with the stigma if their tag is spotted.
The tag means they’re often reluctant to engage with their community and do everyday activities like playing sport for fear of revealing their tag, and can end up isolating themselves, in a form of self-inflicted house arrest, because they do not want to be tracked.
Bhatia argued the practice of tagging had no use other than to wield power over asylum seekers and minority groups. “It’s purely for control — and it is discriminatory. I’ve called it racial surveillance on more than a few occasions and I’ll stick with that term to describe this technology,” he said.
The U.K. has in recent years rolled out a massive program of surveillance and technology to try to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the British taxpayer. Audibert described how the GPS policy forms part of this strategy of deterrence and is part of the Home Office’s overall intention to stop 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 breaching their bail conditions. “It’s criminalizing people that aren’t criminals in the first place.”
Frankie Vetch contributed to this report.