Home Office halts use of visa algorithm after legal challenge to ‘racist’ system

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Foxglove claim victory in legal fight
Photo: Steve Cadman/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sam Trendall

06 Aug 2020

The Home Office is suspending the use of its visa “streaming” algorithm following a judicial review that challenged the lawfulness of the tool and argued that it is inherently racist and discriminatory.

In June, charity the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants joined forces with “tech justice” organisation Foxglove to file the review, which asked that the High Court find the algorithm unlawful and suspend its use until the completion of a “substantive review”.

Without the need for a court decision, the Government Legal Department, on behalf of home secretary Priti Patel, this week wrote to the claimants to inform them that she has agreed to suspend use of the tool from Friday, “pending a redesign of the process and the way in which visa applications are allocated for decision-making”.

“In the course of that redesign, [the home secretary] intends carefully to consider and assess the points you have raised in your claim, including issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality, generally, in the streaming tool,” the GLD added.

“For clarity, the fact of the redesign does not mean that the [home secretary] accepts the allegations in your claim. However, the redesign will be approached with an open mind in considering the concerns you have raised.”

The streaming tool reportedly works by making an algorithmic assessment of each visa application, and grading them on a traffic-light system of green, amber and red before they are passed onto a human assessor for further examination.

The JCWI’s challenge alleged that the government maintains an arcane list of nationalities deemed more suspicious than others, and that applications graded red on the basis of nationality are then subject to greater scrutiny, and are ultimately more likely to be refused.

This results in “a feedback loop… in which biased enforcement and visa statistics reinforce which countries stay on the list of suspect nationalities”, according to the charity.

Following the announcement that the use of the tool is being suspended, JCWI legal policy director Chai Patel said: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates.

"This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

‘Speedy boarding for white people’

The GLD letter claimed that the Home Office “had already moved away from the use of the streaming tool in many application types”.

“Indeed, recently its use has been limited to applications for visit visas and a small number of other entry clearance routes including short-term study, overseas domestic worker, and applications made overseas from non-EEA family members,” it added.

“The [home secretary] has been considering how the streaming tool operates for these application routes for some time. Given the relatively low volumes of visa applications since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact that the pandemic has had on international travel, it has been decided that it is timely to take advantage of the low number of overseas applications to redesign the system now.”

From today, the streaming tool will be replaced by “an interim system”, in which applications falling under the approved destination status programme and those from anyone eligible for an electronic visa waiver scheme will not be subject to any form of streaming or sifting. 

Streaming of all other visa applications “will take place by reference to person-centric attributes – such as evidence of previous travel – and nationality will not be taken into account”, according to the GLD.

Foxglove founder Cori Crider said that, before the launch of any new system, experts and the general public should be consulted as to “whether automation is appropriate at all, and how historic biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots”.

She added: “We’re delighted the Home Office has seen sense and scrapped the streaming tool. Racist feedback loops meant that what should have been a fair migration process was, in practice, just ‘speedy boarding for white people'. What we need is democracy, not government by algorithm.”

The redesign of the streaming process should be completed by the end of October. In the meantime, the government has formally invited the claimants to withdraw the challenge.

The Home Office has released the following statement: “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.”

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.

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