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Who Do We Think We Are?

S3 E6 Migrant Rights 2.0

12 Oct 2023

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of Who do we think we are? The podcast debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we'll be considering the role of migration in the making of Global Britain, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I'll also be joined by co-host Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain's migration story after Brexit.

Kuba Jablonowski [KJ]: So, the big question is who's the process of digital status optimised for. On the one hand, you have the Home Office, the status controller, so the body that issues and control immigration status automatically. At the other hand, you have the status holder, so the person who is granted status and then has to evidence it in everyday situations, and then in between them actually also have a big group of intermediaries, so people who have to control status and everyday interactions under the hostile environment policy. So, these are two, at least, or actually three different groups of stakeholders, and they will have different needs.

Nando Sigona [NS]: The point is that the system is becoming so remote and so complex that the people that are affected by it, struggle really to understand it. So when you get you look at the campaigns of groups like Liberty or Privacy International run around pointing out about the risk associated with digitalization, it really takes a degree in Engineering to understand what they're talking about and make you think this may have a real impact on the capacity of people to understand and mobilise for the rights.

MB: Today, we're talking about digital bordering. You have heard there from our guest, Kuba Jablonowski, who's a lecturer in sociology at the University of Bristol, as he asked, Who are the stakeholders in the shift towards the increasing digitization of borders and immigration status? You also heard from my co-host, Nando Sigona on the challenges that this shift towards digitization raises for advocacy around migrant rights. Before we hear more, let's bring this around to something that you might be more familiar with, if you've travelled abroad in recent years - eGates at airports and the advanced passenger information that you have to submit to your airline before you travel. Now, I'm old enough to remember a time when these weren't commonplace. But have you ever stopped to wonder what these technologies are for? Yes, it's true, it might speed up your passage through passport control if you can use these eGates. But I always wonder what more is going on here. And what about for those people who can't use the eGates. Since the UK left the EU, British passport holders can no longer use eGates and EU airports as we did before. For me this means that every time I arrive in Athens, my husband goes one way with his Greek passport while I stand in the queue waiting to be seen by a border guard. And that's just one example of how the technologies of the border sought between people on the basis of where they're from. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. The technologies of the border are also at work behind the scenes and in everyday life. In this episode, we're turning to consider these technologies and their use in immigration controls to reveal how beyond the discourse of efficiency, these are intimately connected with the increasing securitization of borders around the world. We consider why states have turned towards these and what this makes visible about bordering as a practice under process today, and we'll consider what this means for migrant rights. Elena Zambelli explains what we mean by digital bordering, demonstrating how this is linked to surveillance and highlighting how this is one of the technologies through which an individual's right to cross borders is becoming increasingly uncertain. We'll hear more from Kuba about the digital online-only roll-out of the EU settled status scheme (that's the post-Brexit status awarded to EU nationals resident in the UK). He explains the technological peculiarities of the status, and how it's connected to the broader ambitions of the Home Office relating to the digitization of the UK's borders. And he highlights how the needs of the government were prioritised over those of users. And the significant consequences this has had for people's experiences of being asked to demonstrate their status in everyday life. Finally, Nando and I turn our attention to how those taking part in our research experienced such statuses, how the online-only status further entrenches the precarity and insecurity among those whose lives and livelihoods depend on being able to demonstrate their immigration status, and how this links to the increasing atomization of the border. We also considered the challenges that this presents for migrant rights and advocacy, given the technological expertise required to understand and explain the issues with these new technologies. But first, it's over to Elena to hear more about what social scientists mean, when they talk about digital bordering.

Elena Zambelli [EZ]: When travelling across the world, people are being subjected to multiple forms of tracking and profiling by state agencies. What risks are there for migrants and citizens in the growing use of technologies for migration, governance and enforcement? Digital bordering is used to refer to how digital technologies are used to surveil, screen, filter and manage people in their everyday lives. There are many ways to classify digital bordering technologies. One way of doing so is to distinguish them based on their visibility to the targets of their surveillance, us included. On the one hand, there are technologies which we may refer to as front stage, these are at least potentially visible to the person subject to them, who in many cases, will be aware their movement and biometric information is being captured, even if this may be happening against their will. These technologies may be heat detectors, drones, fingerprinting, visual recognition cameras, and others. You may have for example, encountered these at the border when crossing an e-gate with an electronic passport containing your biometric information. In some countries such as the US, officials also have the right to demand access to a person's cell phone, tablet and similar objects to seek evidence of potential immigration offences or security risks in their digital communications. On the other hand, there are technologies which we may refer to as backstage because they are inaccessible to lay people. The remoteness is such that in some cases, we may not even know about their existence, where they are located, who's using them and what for. These are for example, systems used to process big data to provide the population and implement ad hoc measures to survey individuals and groups deemed dangerous, undesirable, or for some reasons, subjects deserving special attention. These subjects are us, for anyway, just anybody going about their daily lives. For example, in 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch tax authorities had used a self-learning algorithm to identify people they suspected of childcare benefit fraud. These families were then penalised based on the system's risk indicators, with tragic consequences. An audit later showed that the tax authorities focused specifically on racially minoritized people, with some nationalities constituting a particular focus. You are right in thinking that this level and depths of control may feel quite personal, intrusive and discriminatory. After all, the pros and cons of the ongoing process of border digitalization vary depending on who is assessing them. So what's in it for states? Digital watering practices have justified on the grounds that fast and cost-effective ways to collect and process data in ways that are both granular and macro, in-depth and networked. On the one hand, everybody's data is constantly being collected and used to monitor individuals and construct risk profiles in different domains, from immigration to welfare to security, and others. On the other hand, knowledge collected in each of these domains may be linked and cross referenced with other databases, giving states access to a large and comprehensive pool of information supporting their functions. For lay people, however, these practices may look far less appealing as they may infringe their privacy or even endanger the safety of their personal information in case of cyber-attacks and data breaches. As Kuba Jablonowski will explain, they're also far from exact or infallible. And as decisions on who we are to the state we live in, or travel to, are already may be more and more made by machines, this leaves us old with less certainty about our possibility to hold institutions accountable, and seek remedy for discrimination, mistakes, and abuses.

MB: That's a bit of an introduction to the theory. But let's turn now to look at an example and go into this in a little bit more depth. Here's Kuba explaining the EU settled status scheme and its relationship to the ongoing process of digitising the UK is borders.

KJ: The EU settlement scheme, which is the kind of the process, the procedure devised to transfer EU nationals living in the UK onto the UK immigration system after Brexit, it is indeed a digital-only scheme or the status that the scheme grants is digital only, but there is another important thing about it, it's also online only, and that's probably the crucial bit. So, the status holder when they get status, they get no document or token that confirms that status. Every time they want to view it, or evidence it to somebody else, they have to go to a dedicated website, and then get authorised to display their status. And that's quite an important difference. Because you can imagine digital only immigration status, that wouldn't work like that. So for example, you can think of a COVID pass or a boarding pass, we're all familiar with those, these are also digital-only documents confirming a certain status, but they do so in a different way, you can download them onto your device, you can print them, you can screenshot them, you can hold on to them. Whereas the digital-only status granted under the EU settlement scheme is nothing like it, it has to be generated through a website, and then if you want to show it to somebody, you have to give them a special code and your date of birth, and then they have to go to the dedicated website too, and then input all those details into their own details, and only then they can, they can view it. So, that's an important difference. And then the other thing that is actually, you know, probably worth saying right at the start is that this, this system does not only apply to that cohort that the EU settlement scheme was designed for, because initially it did, but then it was extended to all other immigration routes. So as of April 2022, it's not only EU citizens settled in the UK that have to be using that system, it's all migrants pretty much, and the system will be extended by the end of 2024 to include everyone, all visa holders in the UK. That's the, that's the plan of the Home Office. The question then is when a digital system like that is designed, whose needs are prioritised in that design process. And guess what? I think in the case of the UK implementation towards the needs of the Home Office that got prioritised to start with. If we think of how the status works, the key thing is that it's not a thing, it's a process. As I said, there is no token of status, but rather the status is accessed online, and it is computed in real time during checks from biographic biometric and immigration records. So, the kind of the what the Home Office calls the business logic, the engine of the digital status has to resolve multiple identities and statuses because for a lot of people, many statuses this will be available on the records - if they extended or changed the form of immigration leave they have. Or if they apply to upgrade the form of immigration that they have, they will have multiple statuses. So, the kind of the algorithmic logics within, within the Home Office service will have to decide what to display for that person when they go on to check status. And then for another check, all this gets computed again. So, you can never really be sure about the outcome of that status checks until you go on to generate status online. And in the course of my research, I saw people whose statuses were going terribly wrong between checks, sometimes getting entangled with statuses of other people, without any action by them. So, you can never be sure what the system will show when you log on. So that's a massive disadvantage to status holder, you can imagine different alternative implementations of digital status that would benefit status holders because, you know, it's probably wrong to say that digital status is good or bad. It's kind of it can perform different functions depending on how it's done. So, for example, if digital status resembled a boarding pass, then you could imagine a situation where you grab your passport as an EU citizen, go to EU country, you forget your residence card in a situation of physical documents. And then you want to go back and suddenly you think, Oh, how will I go back to the UK now that I don't have my residence card, and with digital status resembling a boarding pass, you can just generate another one, and simply put it on your device, screenshotted, WhatsApped and you have it again. So digital status can have advantages for user as well not only for the controller of status, but the way it has been implemented in the UK, it's quite hard to think about any particular advantages. So the digital border manifests in people's lives in the UK in very similar contexts in which the physical border manifested before because we live under the hostile environment policy, immigration status checks are part of part of everyday life, really. So people need to conduct digital checks. There used to be offline checks for right to work, right to rent, to access welfare, health care, and obviously at the border. But when we think about the border, crossing the border into the UK, we often think about border officials, but actually the border is also the checking personnel at the airport. So the travel agent, it could be so it's also those contexts in which people have to be able to prove that they're eligible to enter the UK. It doesn't only manifest for migrants, it obviously also manifests for those who have to check status. So if we talk about right to work, right to rent checks, it's also like employers and landlords that have to carry out the checks, that raises important questions about quality assurance, how does the Home Office ensure that this is done in a nondiscriminatory manner, for example, but then the kind of really final, but very interesting point about digital checks is not when they manifest, but when they do not manifest. And when I was talking about the transactional design of digital status, where, where it's all conducted online, I think the main point of it is that it can be conducted, the check can be conducted without the consent or even knowledge of the person being checked. Because if it is all in the cloud, if it's all on Home Office servers, then there is nothing stopping a government department checking that that status. And that's happening already, background checks are already implemented across a number of government departments. So status holders will not necessarily know that they're crossing a border when they cross it digitally. So if we accept that the digital border manifests in people's lives similarly, but differently than the physical border before, then huge questions arise about equality impact and discriminatory impacts of those borders and how they, how they interact with things like gender, sexuality, and race in particular. Now, I will disappoint you here, the answer is that we don't know and I think there is a need for much more research into this. But um, one example that they I can give is a report that we've done with Law Centres Network, two years ago, when we audited their client base that needed to use advice around the EU settlement scheme, it turned out that 44% of those clients were not white, and for A-14 country, so the old EU countries, you know, you think about Frenchman, Germans, Spanish, Belgian, for that cohort, the proportion of black clients was almost 50%, as opposed to 40% of clients who are white. So there has been that massive disproportion that we found in the need for non-white applicants to get legal help with their EUSS applications. There is no race monitoring in the settlement scheme, the scheme itself is race blind as our digital status services, so it's very hard to know. But there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that digitization disproportionately impacts people who are not white. The one perhaps hint at what may be going on is that those systems are built like onion, like an onion, right? So there is there are layers and layers and layers of data that they draw on. So EU settlement scheme, in the moment of application, it doesn't only generate data for the app that you use to apply, but it also draws in data from various government databases. So if there is bias, and the data that the government collects, and we know that there is a lot of bias in the data that the government collects, and then if these data are used for decision making, then possibly get by a decision. But um, that's the theory of it, I think, I think to be able to successfully advocate in the space and successfully convince the government to do things differently, and if it is committed to the digitization of borders, at least digitise them in a way that will be non discriminatory, then we need to have more specific arguments about what's going on and we simply don't quite know yet. Advocacy around borders and its evolution after Brexit, this part of it is related to digitization. Part of it is related to the extension of the hostile environment to incorporate new large group of migrants or citizens. It's a very complex issue because from the outside we think about migrants rights campaigners, from the inside when you got to know those campaigns, you'll see quite substantial political, ethical, methodological differences between different campaigns. And it's not necessarily a group of actors speaking with one voice. But they did, it did change in quite specific ways since Brexit. First of all, you had new actors emerging, so, the 3million, the group that they collaborate with, is a prime example. But by far, not the only, that's probably the organisation that gets the most media attention, but there are multiple other organisations that emerged after Brexit or that gained new prominence after Brexit. Then you've got new issues coming up. So obviously, the legal rights and the data rights of migrants became a new space for research, for advocacy, and campaigning after Brexit, and that generated new alliances. So, to give you one specific example of such new alliances, or new form of campaigning, the UK government when it was transposing GDPR regulation, the EU Data Protection Regulation to domestic law, they decided to insert a clause called the 'immigration exemption' where you couldn't get your immigration related information if you submit a subject access requests or a request to data controller to give you your data. And it was something that was picked up by the Open Rights Group, which is a data rights campaign. And then the 3million was also very much interested in that because of that digital nature of of the EU settlement scheme. And they campaigned they co-wrote the briefing for the European Parliament, but crucially, they also took the government to court. And when I think twice now, in a judicial review against against this exemption forcing the UK government to implement changes, those changes are still quite contentious, but that had far-reaching consequences. For example, the EU inserted a sunset clause in its data adequacy decision. So because of that litigation, the EU says, we will share data with you electronically, but this adequacy decision may expire unless you sort out that immigration exemption. So there were new alliances, and they actually could be successful in some ways. Talking about advocacy and campaigning around the digital-only immigration status, I will just say one key thing that obviously in order to engage in that campaigning, you have to make a call whether you accept that border controls in some form are legitimate or not. Because if you deny their legitimacy, then maybe it doesn't make sense to get entangled into questions how digital status should look like exactly. And you would say, for example, that people should be free to access services when they present themselves in front of those services without need for any checks, because if they're here, that means that they have the right to do it. So there are also quite important differences and how those movements that emerge after Brexit and that those movements that emerge around data rights approach that issue for political reasons. I think, in a way, you can probably keep arguing both, that everybody should have the right and also that everybody should have means to evidence the rights they have. But that's another conversation, I suppose.

MB: You're listening to Who do we think we are? presents Global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit, hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co-host Nando Sigona. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you'll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast.

MB: I think that Kuba's thoughts on the technologies of digital bordering and that shift towards not only the digital but also online-only status, as well as his reflections on how these technologies are experienced and the glitches in the system offer quite a lot for us to think with. And I just wanted to add a little bit more detail about this online-only status because what Kuba was describing was how that's been rolled out via the EU settled status scheme. So that was the scheme for EU nationals who were living in the UK before Brexit, to shift their status from that of mobile citizens to being people who were here protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. But it's also been rolled out for the Hong Kong BNO visa holders. And we've seen a little bit of organising around that issue between Hongkongers in Britain, that's the leading advocacy group for Hongkongers who've moved to the UK and the 3million, who again, that's the leading advocacy group for citizens’ rights when it comes to EU nationals in the UK. But what's interesting, I think, is that this was not the case for the Ukrainians who actually received biometric residence permits instead. So before we get into a little bit more detail around bordering and digitization, I just wondered Nando, if you had any reflections on what those taking part in our research had to say about that online-only status.

NS: A number of people we spoke to, during our interviews pointed out how they felt uncertain about their own sort of the grounding of the right to stay in the country because they didn't have anything to prove it. One of the people we spoke to, Leya, from Hong Kong in her 20s, actually pointed out how, if you're an old person, which is not really used to live in the digital world, that uncertainty is even more marked.

Voiceover – Hongkonger in UK 1: Our generation may be very used to confirmation by email. But to older people, I need a piece of paper, everyone is asking me, do you need a piece of paper passing the immigration? Did they issue you a piece of paper?


MB: I think that that quotation from Leya really shows the issue around what happens when you get to the border and the kinds of anxiety it might produce not to have a kind of physical proof of status when you show it, which I know is reflected in the case of lots of EU nationals who came to the UK. But it's not just at the border, that that ability to prove your status might become significant. And Maria, who was Swedish in her 50s, and living in the UK, illustrated this and her response to us about her experience of going through Brexit

Voiceover – EU citizen in UK 1: Because of Brexit, lack of fiscal proof, discrimination, etc. I was unemployed for a year in 2021. Before they say I've never been employed for longer than three to four months. I looked for 80 to 90 jobs for a month. I have some debt now. So I cannot afford to move to the Republic of Ireland, I have to save money first.

MB: What this really points to is this idea of everyday bordering and we're going to discuss that a little bit more later on in our discussion. But I think to go back to this question of the broader context in which this is being introduced, I think it's important to highlight that EU nationals in the UK who were in the UK before Brexit were almost a test case, for this new digitised system, there were a large group of people on whom that system could be almost beta-tested. And this is one of the reasons why I think it's important to consider their case alongside other issues relating to migrants' rights. But there's a much bigger story to this isn't there, Nando, going on behind the scenes.

NS: What we're seeing is that the border, it's becoming diffused, it has become privatised by a number of people that are in charge to carry out border control. And in many ways, the border is no longer a point of where you enter the country or leave the country. So a geographical barrier. But it becomes something that you encounter in your everyday life. And this is where the concept of 'everyday bordering' comes from particularly the work of sociologist Nira Yuval Davis. What is interesting, I mean, the example of Maria clearly pointed out, is this idea that even if you have to apply for a job, and you have the right to stay in the country, the uncertainty surrounding your status, because you don't have any physical proof of your right to stay oh, you're uncertain, can create in those who are there to give you the job, the employer the employers, uncertainty, so they may prefer other people that can prove their status. We have seen it also with in relation to, for example, people trying to rent accommodation among the people we spoke to. And this is also emerged from research carried out by other organisations, that some cases people are unable to prove or for example, that they have a right to stay for a period which is longer that the minimum contract for rent. And so they refuse to renting the house. The point here is that if you privatise the control, it's also very difficult to guarantee some kind of consistency in the way that the rules are applied, you got a lot of actors engaging with this rule, some people may be more cautious in the way they implement it, and others less and this may cause very a lot of difference. And also, as we know from many, a lot of research, if you happen to belong to minorities or to a racialized group, you may find these borders much more on your face than if you are from sort of a majority group that normally is not affected by immigration controls.

MB: So when we're talking about everyday bordering, you're also talking about what Colin Yeo who was a guest on one of our previous episodes refers to as the deputisation of the border. So all sorts of people who aren't really official border officials are employed by the government being required to check people's right to work, right to health care, all sorts of other things. But if we could kind of step back a little bit it what I mean? So some people would say, and certainly the government would argue that this is just about making things more efficient. And obviously, we see the fallout. And it's experienced in the lives of migrants in very particular ways, and in quite anxiety-inducing ways. But there's another story here isn't there, about the relationship between bordering and what I think we could probably colloquially understand as surveillance. And I just wanted wondered if you wanted to reflect on that a little bit.

NS: So I remember in 2012, that David Cameron, at the time in which the government was launching its hostile environment policy against undocumented migrants, still invited the people, the British public to report online people that they thought that were undocumented migrants. And it was actually a move that really reminded me kind of Cold War tactics used by the Stasi or other intelligence agency, you know, to create this climate and this culture of suspicion and disbelief against migrants, which then we saw very much amplified in other aspects of society for the media and politicians and other actors.

MB: Yeah, I mean, I remember, because I live part time near the Kent coast. And all around the Kent coast, from that period onwards, there will be these posters, which asked people, you know, with this kind of quite Art Deco imageries, you know, to report anything suspicious, if they see a boat that they don't, you know, that they don't understand why it's there to report it immediately. So actually requesting members of the general public become surveillance agents for the state reporting on their neighbours. But I think what's really important to highlight about this is that this is relatively new, and that it does actually coincide with the hostile environment, that culture of disbelief. So the politics of migration are really fundamentally caught up within this, and indeed, the politicisation. And before we move on Nando, I was just wondering about whether we should just break down briefly what that turned towards thinking about bordering opens up when we're discussing migration, as opposed to talking about borders.

NS: In our research, we often point out to the fact that the politics of migration is not just about who enters the country, through what pathways, but it's very much about the condition, and the terms under which people come to live and work in these countries. I think one of the things that this idea of border helps us to see is it how a migrant is constructed as a migrant within our society through this continuous check on the right to stay, on the right to work, the right to rent accommodation, the fact that they can be questioned and asked to prove their their right to stay by a number of agents basically construct the individuals as precarious, sort of embed in the experience of the migrant, this idea of, of precarity, this idea of being very much a migrant workers there, that is there for working, but not to create problems. Sometimes we talk about the creation of these docile bodies, which basically don't have the rights like other citizen, they are people that are exploitable, and can also be disposed when they are no longer needed. We have seen, for example, you know, a lot of the discussion around the migration often point out about the migrants that exploit the welfare system, the migrants that use our NHS, as if, like, life is not made also of being unwell and having to go to a hospital, you know, you're you're good for us only as long and for as much as you are here for working. And I think this is becoming more and more embedded into the immigration system in the UK.

MB: Definitely. And we'll come back to this in a later episode about the stratification of those rights, I think, depending on which route you arrive in the UK, but to come back to this conversation around digitization. Another side of this, though, is the kind of the important context of what the British government are trying to do. And very, very simply, they have this plan to fully digitise their borders. And I should stress is not just the UK who are doing this, and I'm obviously very sceptical about whether it's for the purposes of efficiency, but I suppose you know, it's an easy narrative for people to pick up the idea that it'd be way easier for me with my British passport to go through a border if the border is digitised. But what does that miss from view, do you think, particularly about that relationship between digitization and security?

NS: I think obviously, there is a couple of things and I think Kuba pointed out is that the there is on the one hand digitalization, and on the other end, there is also this online-only element to it, which in the absence of a documentation with a with a term, an end date, that this is the time I have the right to be here, it really sort of embed that sense of precarity we just discussed early, so the point here is, in a sense, it creates this idea that your right to stay in the country is continuously reassessed at the time in which is asked. So it's not like you have an expiration date, is that the expiration date is reproduced at the time in which the Home Office or the police enquire it, and so there is always the risk of the glitch that Kuba described so eloquently. But there is also this sense of feeling always precarious that has become the norm. I think that is a characteristic. The other issue is that clearly, currently this digitalization process is very much, was introduced as an example of cost efficiency on one end, because the assumption is that they came back and ran the with lower cost because it's digitalized, it doesn't need to have a paper trail, there is less people involved in the decision making, etc. But it's also very much driven by a security agenda. And the thing which is striking and interesting is that when the UK was part of the European Union, it was very much a key actor, for example, in Europol, at the time in which we left the European Union the director of Europol was a British civil servant, but also was what behind the drive to digitalize and twist change information. So there is one thing is about fingerprinting, and using various technologies or monitoring movements. And another thing is basically the creation of this huge dataset, this big data and now we circulate between countries. So the point Brexit came, the UK has been cut out of some of this databases, an in way that the security argument that was underpinning them has been strongly undermined by this decision. And in fact, what we saw recently, a part of the discussion which the Labour Party is engaged with European partners are around rejoining some forms of, of security community.

MB: I think that that's a really important point about the interplay of Brexit with these discussions around what's happening to the British border. But it's also an important reminder that since the early 2000s, security has been part of the agenda around immigration control, in ways that we might not have previously seen. So there's been this broader shift towards securitisation, which happened to coincide with 9/11. But I suppose if we turn back again, towards thinking about the people themselves who are subject to these forms of state power, because this is quite significant source of state power, I mean, imagine this situation where on a day to day basis, a state can make a decision about your right to be there or your right to access particular services, just perhaps by - and I'm probably being a little bit too conspiracy oriented here, but but just by flicking a switch author and just deciding that day, okay, no, actually, there's too much information that's accumulated by this person that suggests that they're not well positioned in respect to the public good, and therefore, we're going to deny them rights. I mean, I probably am getting a bit too 1984 there, but um, but nevertheless, you could see how those fears could circulate?

NS: Well, I don't think it really is a conspiracy. I mean, there has been a lot of cases in which for example, Application for naturalisation ever been rejected on the basis of good characters, and the applicant really struggled to find out what was being raised as an issue of concern. And this is partly due to the fact that the databases are joined-up and information are gathered from very different sources without knowledge of the applicant in a way.

MB: Okay, so maybe I haven't gone too far then. So it's not a conspiracy. Yes, big brother is watching. But I suppose there is that other side of it isn't there, which is what this shift in terms of their technologies for controlling people trying to cross the borders mean for those who are subject to them beyond their individual experiences and into thinking about what it means for activism, for social movements for migrants rights more generally, like, I mean, I've listened to Kuba present this work about the glitches in the system so many times, and I think I've more or less got the nub of it now. But it's so complicated and so difficult to understand. So I'm just thinking even the people who are subject to this, to what extent do they understand what's happening beyond the injustices that are produced by it? And what does that mean for their rights to mobilise?

NS: I think it is that a very important issue and I think is a question that also the civil society organisation and campaign groups have to face. The point is that the system is becoming so remote and so complex that the people that are affected by it, struggle really to understand it. So when you get you look at the these campaigns that groups like Liberty or Privacy International ran around pointing out about the risk associated with digitalization, it really takes a degree in Engineering to understand what they're talking about and tell you think this may have a real impact on the capacity of people to understand and mobilise for their rights. So it's an issue that in the past, I've really, we've already seen it when the campaigning for migrant rights rather than being run, driven by the migrants and the lay people became very much a matter of for legal activist, now for the lawyers in court discussing in in legalistic terms, bringing the case to, to the European Court of Human Rights, for example. And then the problem with this is that you may get some success, you may win some battles, but at the same time, you are creating a distance between the public and the issues raised, which affected both a distance with the migrants that are directly affected, but also, I think it feeds into a narrative which we have seen a lot by the right wing government in place now, against the lawyers against the like the expert from outside. Yes, yeah. And so there is an issue, I think important should to raise and discuss among the organisations about how to make it accessible, how to try to open up and creating alliances, not just with migrants organisation, but also with the broader public around these issues.

MB: Yeah, I mean, it's a particular form of expertise, understanding the software that, what and what's happening beyond that, but I think you're absolutely right, we really need to pay attention to what this means in respect to questions about activism, around social movements, but also around migrant justice, I suppose, in consequence of those things. I think that's been a bit of a whirlwind tour of all thing borders, bordering digitisation and migrant rights. But I hope it's given you a sense, as it has for me, about why we should care about some of these changes, and why we need to look at those shifts as they're ongoing at the moment, and pay attention and flag the injustices that they're producing. So thank you very much for listening.

NS: Thank you.

MB: Who do we think we are? presents Global Britain is a podcast produced and presented by me Michaela Benson, and Nando Sigona as part of the research project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit that's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit initiative. And you can find out more about the project at That's A big thank you to our guest on this episode, Kuba Jablonowski, and to our voiceover artists, Eva Li and Maria Chilimigras. A special thanks to Emma Holton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support, to Elena Zambelli for the additional research and to George Kalivis for the cover art and social media assets. If you head over to our newly updated website, who do we think we, you'll find transcripts and enhanced show notes that include active listening questions, our podcast pics, and where you can go to find out more about the topics we discussed. And just a last call. If you're new to the podcast and like what you've heard, check out our back catalogue. We're into season three, so there's plenty to dip into. From our deep dive into what free movement is and isn't with Elspeth Guild from earlier this year to the consideration of European identities from the Aliens Act onwards with Bolaji Balogun and Marius Turda. Get in touch with us via our socials to let us know what you've learned from listening and what you'd like to hear more of. That's all for now, but we'll be back with another episode very soon.

Borders around the world are becoming increasingly digitised. But who does the digitisation of borders serve? How are these technologies related to state-led projects of securitisation and surveillance? And what do digital bordering practices mean for migrants, migrant rights and advocacy?

In this episode we lift the lid on digital bordering. We debunk political rhetoric about how these make border control more efficient to consider what the increasing use of such technologies of border control makes visible about bordering as a practice and process around the world today. Elena Zambelli considers what we mean when we talk about digital borders and shows it is linked to the increasing precarity of legal status among migrants. Kuba Jablonowski, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol joins us with a case study that brings all of this to life: the digital and online only roll out of the EU Settled Status Scheme (EUSS) in the UK, how this was framed by the priorities of the Home Office, the consequences for EU nationals, including the racial discrimination produced through its implementation. And Nando and Michaela turn their attention to how those taking part on our research experienced such statuses, how this links to Hostile Environment, and the challenges that this presents for migrant rights and advocacy.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on our website Who do we think we are?

In this episode we cover …

  1. Digital bordering and surveillance
  2. Everyday bordering and the Hostile Environment
  3. Brexit and the EU Settlement Scheme

Find more about …

The many glitches that may arise when evidencing digital immigration status in this blog and article by Kuba

The risks for migrants and citizens in the increased use of digital technologies in migration governance and enforcement in this video conversation between Nando and Millie Graham Wood of Privacy International

How race affects digital border enforcement in this report issued by E. Tendayi Achiume, former Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and Professor of Law at UCLA

The diffusion and dispersal of borders in migrants and citizens’ everyday life in this article by Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy

Our podcast picks for this episode are

Borders and Belonging, When AI is managing migration, should we be afraid

Migration Policy Institute Podcast, Towards a roadmap for digitalization in the EU Humanitarian Protection Space

The Migration Podcast, Koen Leurs on Digital Migration

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How to cite this episode

Benson, M., Sigona, N., Jablonowski, K., and Zambelli, E. (2023) Who do we think we are? Presents ‘Global Britain’. S3 E6 Migrant Rights 2.0 [Podcast] 13 October 2023. Available at:

Active listening questions

  • What digital technologies do states use at the border?
  • When and where can and does digital bordering take place?
  • Is digital proof of immigration status secure?
  • What risks do migrants and citizens face in the growing use of digital technologies?

View all active listening questions