To mark 10 years of the Home Office's hostile environment, a coalition of charities last night projected a vast message on the Home Office's Lunar House building in South London, to draw attention to Home Secretary Priti Patel's plans to GPS ankle tag thousands of migrants - a coercive, costly, and dehumanising measure.
As part of a week of events to mark 10 years of the "hostile environment", a set of policies designed to make life difficult for what former Home Secretary Theresa May called "illegal immigrants" living in the UK, a coalition of charities (Privacy International, Bail for Immigration Detainees and Migrants Organise) last night lit up Lunar House, the Home Office's main immigration reporting centre, to bring attention to the increasing use of GPS ankle tagging of migrants, an overreaching surveillance measure.
GPS ankle tagging represents a seismic change in migration surveillance, enabling live location tracking, so that individuals' movements can be followed in real time. It also causes anxiety and other mental health issues due to social stigma and onerous battery charging requirements, whereby an individual - tag attached to their ankle - has to plug it into a charging socket for hours, in some cases even over night. Failure to charge is a breach of bail conditions, which could result in civil and criminal penalties. The battery life of GPS tags is a recognised problem by the Ministry of Justice, who have responsibility for supply of electronic monitoring to the Home Office. Their 2019 evaluation noted that:
“Forty-three per cent of violations were due to tracker shutdowns resulting from loss of the tag’s battery power due to insufficient charging – potentially representing the ‘burden’ of wearers having to charge the battery daily”.
These measures are unreasonable, designed to make daily life unbearable.
Data from the ankle tags may also impact migrants' access to justice - the Home Office plans to use 'trail data' (i.e. all the historical location data collected by the tag) to decide on an individual's immigration application, as well as share data with law enforcement. This goes beyond what the legislation intended and can have serious implications for tagged individuals' exercise of their fundamental rights.
Alongside the rollout of GPS tagging, which began in December 2020, the government has vastly increased the number of people forced to wear a tag. In 2021 it introduced a law that makes electronic monitoring mandatory for people going through deportation proceedings, estimating that this will raise the number of people tagged from 280 to 4500.
Electronic monitoring is part of a wider set of measures that bring immigration enforcement measures and restrictions into communities and are designed to remove all basic rights, entitlements and dignity from people subject to immigration control in the UK - the 'hostile environment', named after a speech given by Theresa May as Home Secretary a decade ago.
The hostile environment has been shown to be harmful, discriminatory, and ineffective. But together, we can resist it and build a better society. Over 60 organisations are calling for people to join a week of action to End the Hostile Environment, June 13th-19th (https://firmcharter.org.uk/week-of-action/), which includes a two-day London exhibition on immigration reporting and GPS tagging.
An asylum seeker who is currently wearing a GPS ankle tag, and who is receiving support from Bail for Immigration Detainees said:
“It’s on my leg and as soon as I see this it’s a constant reminder that...you might be taken away from your family... Every time I see it I’m just thinking they’re going to take me from my daughter any minute now.”
Camilla Graham Wood, Senior Legal Officer and Migration Project Manager, Privacy International said:
"The Home Office’s headline-grabbing ‘Hostile Environment’ policies and dehumanising approach to migration continue to find new ways of humiliating migrants. Their latest salvo is putting people under round the clock surveillance - GPS ankle tagging people, to track their every movement, and to use that data to dubiously assess the value of someone’s immigration application.
The balance of power is already massively stacked in favour of the state, against migrants. GPS ankle tagging migrants is yet another authoritarian tool they have given themselves, which they’ll claim is vital, but in reality is just vindictive, unnecessary, ineffective and expensive."
Brian Dikoff, Legal Organiser, Migrants Organise said:
"We reject GPS monitoring and all electronic monitoring as an extension of the hostile environment and of systems that surveil, criminalise, and harm migrants under the guise of care. Bearing in mind that new forms of digital surveillance are routinely trialled on individuals most subject to state coercion and control, we see the use of electronic monitoring to be a threat to all of our safety."
Annie Viswanathan, Director, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID):
"GPS tagging of non-British citizens in the UK is the latest episode in a troubling history of branding and stigmatising people as less worthy of basic rights and humanity.
"Almost all of our clients are forced to wear GPS tags that entail round the clock surveillance of the wearer’s precise location. Tags affect every aspect of our clients’ daily lives and relationships - they report feeling depressed, ashamed and stigmatised and many have told us that they are being treated like animals. There is no place for this regressive and authoritarian policy in 21st Century Britain. The Home Office should ditch ankle tags and start treating people with dignity and humanity."