Since 2012, the Home Office has operated with a public commitment to creating a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants, with de facto hostile environment policies – such as the requirement on employers to check a prospective employee’s immigration status; or the denial of public funds to people with certain categories of immigration status – having operated for decades. In the context of a hostile environment, many aspects of the lives of undocumented migrants, such as working or driving, or simply being present in the UK without the requisite permission, are criminalised. The Government relies heavily on the existence of these criminal offences coupled with the crime exemption set out at Section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998, in conjunction with a mix of statutory and common law powers to share data, to operate a series of bulk data-sharing agreements. These agreements see confidential personal information collected by essential public services shared with Home Office immigration enforcement teams, without a person having the right to know about this sharing, or to consent or object to it.
It is clear that the majority of offences under immigration law are not serious crimes. For the most part, they are the mundane activities of people doing what they must to survive. The effect of Home Office data sharing, by contrast, is to force undocumented migrants to avoid sending their children to school, visiting the GP, presenting to homelessness services or seeking social support for fear that they risk detention and removal by doing so.
As the entry into force of the GDPR approaches, the Government’s Data Protection Bill proposes a new exemption to the vast majority of data protection rights that may be applied when someone’s personal data is processed for “the maintenance of effective immigration control” or “the investigation or detection of activities” that would undermine it. That exemption is untethered from any notion of criminality, raising the prospect that documented migrants, and potentially British citizens, could have their rights restricted by the Home Office, public services such as the NHS and schools, and private sector contractors and data brokers under the auspices of immigration control. However, many people are unlikely to be unaware that the exemption has been applied to them, and those that may find themselves targeted are often in an incredibly precarious position, which limits their ability to speak out publicly against the issue. More broadly, it is difficult for to make the issue of bulk data sharing real and tangible to the wider public, even when the Government’s treatment of migrants’ data sets an alarming precedent that may have implications for us all.
As things currently stand, the Home Office is sacrificing children’s education, universal healthcare, and the prevention of serious crime on the altar of immigration control. This is a human rights issue of the utmost importance. There must be a firewall between Home Office immigration control and other Government departments, so that everyone can access essential public services without fear. That is what Liberty’s ‘Care Don’t Share’ campaign, launching in May, will advocate for. It is an aim that would be amply supported by data visualisations illustrating the flow of data between the Home Office, individuals, and trusted public services, and reliable research among affected groups to establish what their characteristics are (to evidence discriminatory effects of these policies), the deterrent effects of these data-sharing practices, and indeed, the wider impact on perceptions of trust, privacy and confidentiality among the professionals who administer and deliver our public services.
About the speakers
Gracie joined Liberty in July 2017 and leads work to oppose the Government’s “hostile environment” policies on immigration.
Before joining Liberty, Gracie worked in casework, research and policy across several NGOs to support survivors of torture and working migrants to navigate the UK’s immigration system. She also trained public officials and third sector workers to use the Human Rights Act in their day-to-day work. She holds a Masters in Human Rights from the LSE and a degree in Philosophy & French from Oxford University.
Gracie joined the Liberty team after collaborating with us for Against Borders for Children on the Boycott School Census campaign. Her work at the frontline of small migrants’ rights organisations made her keenly aware of the need for bold, unapologetic campaigning for systemic change.ding digital visual anthropology as well as a variety of qualitative, ethnographic methodologies appropriate to the study of the digital environment.