The Home Office is shirking its responsibilities, says Bethany Morris.
The Home Office’s process for assessing Visa applicants is inadequate and could be discriminatory.
The Home Office uses a ‘traffic-light’ style system to process Visas, which examines applicants’ country of origin and age to assess their right to stay in the country. It then brands each applicant with a colour of either red, yellow or green to highlight their potential ‘risk’.
Although the Home Office has stressed that the algorithm’s verdict is always corroborated by a human caseworker to ensure it is legal and accurate, immigration professionals have warned that the process risks becoming a ‘de-facto decision making tool’.
Many are concerned that the system – with its emphasis on country of origin – is inherently racist. Similar (human-designed) algorithms used in the US have been found to be discriminatory against ethnic minorities. The digitisation of the application process has also come under fire due to the lack of accountability associated with using artificial intelligence in government operations.
This lack of accountability exists in other areas of Visa processing too, and the Home Office’s use of private companies to outsource applications makes them, rather worryingly, entirely devoid of responsibility.
In 2018, the Home Office subcontracted Sopra Steria to handle immigration claims from inside the UK, and VFS Global for applications from other countries – with both companies are solely responsible for collecting the ‘biometrics’ of Visa applicants. Their role reduces the applicant’s correspondence with the Home Office to next to nil, with the ‘middle-man’ subcontractors essentially sitting at the heart of the interactions.
Both companies however have a chequered history: Sopra Steria have recently come under fire for charging astronomical fees for appointments; only six of their service points across the country are free to attend, while sixty more are charging an average of £60 per appointment.
The inaccessibility of these service points means many applicants must travel many miles to attend, and often have to pay sky-high prices. The Independent recently reported the case of applicant Abdul Farooq from Manchester, who had to pay £780 for an appointment in London to supply his biometric data, as no appointments were available closer to his home before his Visa deadline.
VFS Global’s reputation has come under fire in recent years too, with ‘technical glitches’ in 2015 compromising the sensitive information – such as passports, addresses and dates of birth – for thousands of applicants.
David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, has stated that the Home Office’s outsourcing of operations has been done to “manage its capacity” due to funding cuts – which have meant the process is being done “on the cheap”.
Cross-party politicians have also called for an investigation into the relationship between the Home Office and Sopra Steria after warnings that migrants’ risk being mistreated and launched into ‘the hostile environment’.
An influx in applicants is expected with the EU Settlement Scheme, many of which will go on to apply for British Citizenship, and the number of international students expected in September brings fears that the company will not be able to cope with the demand.
The Immigration Law Practitioner’s Association (ILPA) backs the investigation which is expected to assess the competency of Sopra Steria and examine what they see as an unjust level of profiteering from applicants.
Subcontracting Visa applications to private companies has proved a disastrous manoeuvre for applicants who are now facing exorbitant fees, long journeys and increased risks of rejection.
Ultimately, these failures serve to remind applicants that Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy, despite claims of it being over, is never too far behind those fighting their way through the process. How much longer can this go on?
Bethany Morris is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers.
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