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Computer says no – Why UK visa applicants are at the mercy of algorithms

  • Written by  Joanne Starkie
  • Published in Opinions
Computer says no – Why UK visa applicants are at the mercy of algorithms
14 Aug
The reliance on outsourcing for processing UK immigration cases is a major cause for concern: users report a multitude of problems spanning from a lack of appointments, dispersed and minimal accessible sites, contradictory correspondence, a ‘maze of misinformation’ and ‘Kafkaesque’ customer services

The use of algorithms is rapidly becoming the norm across many facets of modern society to the point where even visa applications are processed in this manner. However, the replacement of human judgement and empathy within these systems has been met with widespread criticism as it is discovered that such computers often hold a degree of bias, causing them to automatically reject applicants based on certain characteristics or personal information, whether they are applying for a job, a mortgage or a visa.

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As a result, the Home Office has been accused of relying on ‘racist’ computer algorithms as reports emerge of high rejection rates being common among applicants from certain countries – especially Africa – for often unexplained, unjust or arbitrary reasons. The current system used by the Home Office assesses the visa applicant’s age and country of origin and uses this information to assign a ‘traffic light’ colour code to them, depending on the perceived risk of the applicant staying in the UK. The discovery was made when a group of lawyers – including The Law Society’s president, Christina Blacklaws – were shown the software during a visit.

Many legitimate applications are rejected outright. While the Home Office has always maintained that this system is fair, robust and does not contravene human rights or any laws, immigration experts including the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, warn that the use of such systems becomes an automatic decision-making tool. Blacklaws told the Financial Times that the tool ‘may well disadvantage certain groups of people based on generic markers such as age, country of origin or whether they have travelled before.’

UK Home OfficeThe UK Home Office has outsourced its visa application processing to third-party companies

Although this approach is concerning enough, the Home Office’s abandonment of responsibility and judgement does not end there. The latest scandal to emerge out of the government’s immigration department shows that the Home Office has become reliant on private outsourcing firms whose ability to handle the complex task at hand has been called into question on several accounts.

The government subcontracted two companies to deal with visa applications – Sopra Steria was hired to process visa applications made from within the UK, and VFS Global for applications made from outside. Outsourcing the processing of visa applications to these private companies has resulted in the Home Office having virtually no direct interaction with applicants, with Sopra Steria and VFS Global having been given the responsibility to accumulate biometric information and scan across documents to assist an applicant’s case.

Concerns have been raised about both companies not being fit for purpose while simultaneously exploiting visa applicants due to a history of errors and exorbitant fees. There are only six Sopra Steria visa centres in the UK that offer free consultations, and appointments are rare to obtain. Most visa applicants will be required to pay at least £60 for an appointment, with fast-track service fees being considerably higher, often to the sum of several hundred pounds. In addition to these costs, the difficulty in obtaining appointments, especially in urgent cases, often means that applicants are left with no choice but to travel long distances in order to attend an appointment. This was true in a recent case reported in the Independent in which a disabled refugee in Manchester was forced to travel to London and pay £780 for an appointment.

Biometric scanning at airportOne company employed caused private biometric data on up to 50,000 applicants to be exposed to the public

VFS Global has not escaped criticism for its methods either. Its history of system errors and technical problems has been well documented, which has led to serious concerns over the security of the vast amount of personal data that the company holds on all of its visa applicants. In three separate incidents between 2005 and 2015, VFS Global was found to have exposed applicants’ private information, including passports, dates of birth and home addresses, by members of the public.

One Channel 4 investigation uncovered that up to 50,000 users were exposed. The Information Commissioner’s Office accused the government of disobeying data protection laws while Dmitry Bagrow of DataArt UK – one of the members of the public to discover the breach in 2015 – claimed it was clear the issue was not due to a technical issue or ‘bug’ but because ‘whoever designed this system had not even thought about protecting people’s data’. The Foreign Office went as far as to promise ending the partnership entirely as a result – a move which has never come to fruition.

With Sopra Steria and VFS Global already struggling to cope with processing such a high volume of applications in a fair, accurate and timely manner, it is difficult to see how these private companies will cope with the additional strain of a huge influx of applications from EU citizens applying under the EU Settlement Scheme or for British citizenship after Brexit.

Joanne Starkie is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK immigration lawyers

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