Technology in Migration Policy and Practice

The technological changes that have heralded the 4th Industrial Revolution are continuously reshaping almost every part of human life, from society to politics and the economy. The area of international migration, increasingly described as one of the defining areas of interest and study of the 21st century, is no exception. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there were over 271 million recorded international migrants with more than 28 million refugees globally in 2019. Even in the ASEAN region, there were over 662,000 recorded international migrants, a third of whom are refugees. As such the nature of technological advances in the field of migration, including irregular migration, should be of particular interest to those who work in policy-making and practice.

In an effort to better manage irregular migration and its effects on society, governments have been increasingly turning to the use of technology in their migration policy and practices. For example, in 2018, the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration started a pilot programme to place 1,000 asylum seekers using an algorithm, rather than a random allocation of living areas as is the usual policy. In efforts to increase chances of social integration, the algorithm considers the background of individuals (including personal data such as area of residence, training and employment, age, countries of origin and arrival dates) in assigning them to areas where they have the highest probability of employment.

With increasing access to sophisticated technologies at lower costs, refugees themselves are also turning to technological solutions to their problems. Blockchain technology in particular is being used to solve the problem of refugees lacking legal identification documents. Based in Malaysia, the Rohingya Project is working on creating digital identities for Rohingya refugees to solve a key problem facing the diaspora in their host countries – financial exclusion. As the Rohingya are effectively stateless, they lack recognised identity documentation, which tends to restrict them to the ‘shadow economy’, further increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. Having digital identities would enable them to potentially access public services including education, healthcare and banking.

However, these technologies can also work against those they intend to help. As digital identities are likely to contain sensitive information, they could also be used to keep track of and/or further increase surveillance and control of these vulnerable communities in the hands of corporations and governments. This is already happening elsewhere as seen in the case of private data analytics company Palantir Technologies which develops technologies that are being used to track and enforce deportations of irregular migrants in the US. COVID-19 has also exposed the potential abuses of the use of technology in migration policies. In the case of the UK, their contact tracing application uses a centralised model for the data it collects, meaning a significant amount of data including proximity data can be shared with outsourced private companies. The data of users who test positive for COVID-19 will also be kept on the system for 20 years. Although the UK’s National Health Service has said that this information will not be used for nonCOVID-19 related purposes, the UK government has previously made data useful for immigration enforcement purposes exempt from these data protection laws. This exemption could very well come into effect, post-pandemic as well.

Some countries have gone one step further in the discussion, with “immunity passports”. For example, Estonia has created an “immunity passport” app to allow individuals to show proof of their COVID-19 antibodies and/or vaccination records to others. However, scientific consensus around the accuracy of antibody tests is still pending; moreover, this can unnecessarily heighten discrimination against vulnerable communities. Individuals from countries that do not implement such immunity passport programmes could be barred from travelling to countries that enforce them, further marginalising vulnerable refugees who may have limited access to such programmes and/or documentation.

The reshaping of migration policies and practices due to technology has intensified in the 21st century. While advances in technology have clear benefits to both policymakers and migrants themselves, there are also drawbacks. As seen during this current COVID-19 pandemic, while useful as a tool for contact-tracing, the normalisation of surveillance technologies can also quickly turn these tools into symbols of oppression, denying already vulnerable refugee communities agency and dignity. As technology continues to grow and provide solutions to certain problems, they should not be regarded as the cure, but only as part of a cure with political, economic and social dimensions needed as well.