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UK immigration intros compulsory tags for asylum cases

Not volunteering hard enough, apparently...

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The UK Immigration Service is now imposing electronic tagging without the subject's consent in a range of immigration cases, including asylum seekers, overstayers and illegal workers, following a rule change last year. The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) reports that it has been contacted recently by a number of asylum seekers who were fitted with ankle bracelet tags after visiting the Immigration & Nationality Directorate's offices at Lunar House, Croydon to claim asylum.

Tagging, carried out under the Immigration and Asylum Act 2004, was previously used only with the consent of the individual. In a Home Office statement issued on November 8 last year, however, Immigration Minister Tony McNulty announced that policy had been changed. Impressively, McNulty's announcement refers to a commitment made when the Act was being debated by then Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes, that tagging would take place "only with the consent of the individual". This, McNulty says, was "re-iterated when her successor Des Browne wrote to the Joint Committee on Human Rights". "However, consent is not a statutory requirement but was introduced as a matter of policy in recognition of the novel use of electronic monitoring in the immigration context."

So they were only kidding, but that's all right anyway, apparently.

Although asylum cases tagged without their consent are only coming to light now, and the change was only announced to Parliament in November, the statement refers to the introduction of a pilot scheme in October, and appears to suggest that the threat of detention for non-compliance with electronic monitoring was being used from July. The change was made, McNulty explained, because "asking for the subject's consent is inconsistent with any other area of contact management" (contact management" is how IND categorises its dealings with immigration cases).

From the Home Office's perspective, electronic monitoring with consent was unsatisfactory because the system had no teeth. If the individual declined to be monitored or breached the monitoring regime after consenting, there wasn't anything that IND could do to them (apart, we presume, from all the usual stuff). Orwell fans might care to pause briefly and savour what McNulty's complaining about here. According to his statement "the need for consent left us with very little recourse if the individual failed to give it", i.e.the problem with letting them volunteer was that we couldn't force them to volunteer if they didn't volunteer of their own free will, so now we're compelling them to volunteer.

The Home Office currently talks of using three forms of electronic monitoring - voice recognition systems, where the monitored individual has to be at home at specified times to answer automated phone calls, tagging, where a tag enforces a similar form of curfew in conjunction with a base station in the individual's home, and tracking, using a GPS system. Voice recognition is historically likely to have been the most widely-used, but it's fairly easy to fool, and this may have influenced the decision to go for more widespread tagging. Although McNulty's statement referred to tracking, it's highly unlikely that IND will be deploying this. The UK's 'most dangerous terror suspects' (allegedly) seem not to have rated more than basic home tagging last year, so one would only expect asylum seekers to rate something more sophisticated if the Home Office felt they were a useful subject for experimentation.

Which, to an extent, it does. The Home Office suppressed a highly unfavourable report on its tagging pilots last August, but nevertheless remains wedded to the notion that tagging can make a major contribution to the criminal justice system. The central difficulty is that tagging really only works on people who're willing to co-operate. If you want to ditch the tag and run for it you can, always, and if you want to subvert the system by fooling the tag you can, so long as your personal investment in subversion exceeds the Government's investment in failsafes (NB, formula edited for brevity here). A tagging system is likely to work to some extent in the area of immigration (even on a voluntary basis) because subjects will tend to fear the consequences of making trouble or failing to co-operate, for as long as they feel they have a chance of achieving some form of leave to remain.

Immigration subjects however will tend to cease to be co-operative when they see deportation as being inevitable. They have nothing to lose by absconding, so they will. One would therefore expect that short term piloting of the new tagging regime would produce the positive results McNulty reports, but that the results would be less favourable (favourable from IND's point of view, we mean of course) over the entire lifespan of immigration applications and as the number of subjects increased. Nor does tagging make any obvious change to the dynamics of the 'classic' asylum and immigration case; individuals whose application has a chance of success have an interest in not getting lost, so they don't need tagging. Those with no chances left have every reason to get lost, so there's no point in tagging them.

IND's innate talent for losing asylum seekers and overstayers needs little help from the individuals concerned (last year, for example, the Home Office reported 30,000 asylum appeals pending when the real figure turned out to be 42,000), and it has been having trouble with its Blair-imposed mission to deport more failed asylum seekers than the number of applicants with an "unfounded claim" by the end of last year (new deadline, February). Tagging may have some impact on IND's ability to locate and deport failed asylum seekers, but probably not a great deal, for the reasons we've explained.

Despite being a Blair totem, asylum seekers also only represent a small part of the total immigration landscape. Asylum applications are running in the region of between 5,000 and 7,000 a quarter, while Government estimates that there may be up to 570,000 illegal immigrants in the UK. And in the first year since EU enlargement, 293,000 workers from new EU countries registered under the Workers Registration Scheme (but they're legal, as are - sort of - all the other ones who didn't register). But you can see the virtues of focusing on a small number of asylum seekers, from Government's point of view. By their nature, asylum seekers come into the country then turn themselves in, so you know where they are, at least briefly. And as you don't where the ones who don't turn themselves in are, you can hardly tag them, can you? Tricky - so let's concentrate on the easy ones, then... (Thanks to Ideal Government for spotting this. NCADC can be found here. ®

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