Afghans targeted by fake Home Office website

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is currently deciding whether it will take further action against a fake website created by the Home Office. The website aims to deter migrants and refugees from using irregular migration routes to the UK, such as crossing the Channel, but does so in a way which obscures the site’s provenance

Since the revelations about the site in the Independent, there has been some progress, but not enough. The Government has since updated the homepage to read ‘The information on this website has been provided by the Home Office on behalf of the UK Government.’ However, this still does not make it explicitly clear that the website was set up by the Home Office. The privacy policy also has yet to be amended to clarify the relationship between the website and the Government.  

What’s more, the site still carries disinformation directly targeting some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Did this site put Afghans at risk? 

The website content, which is available in five other languages including Dari and Pashto (the two official languages of Afghanistan), was not updated until a week ago. This means that up until last weekend, Afghans who accessed the site were still being invited to email the website, without being made aware that they were actually handing their information and contact details to the UK Government. 

Furthermore, the Dari content states “Our remote immigration consultants can provide you with free and confidential advice on the risks and facts of immigration …” 

CJ McKinney, Deputy Editor of Free Movement, an online resource that provides updates, commentary, training and advice to all those affected by immigration control, has clarified that “The Home Office definitely doesn’t have an immigration advice arm. It has plenty of information on its website, sure, but asylum seekers don’t get individual advice. You might get to talk to a human if you’re being resettled (into the UK) or using the voluntary return service (out of the UK) but that would be more by way of logistics rather than advice.”

Why is the site still up?

It may seem hypocritical for a digital rights organisation to recommend that a web site be taken down. However, the evidence is clear: this site has been created, by the Government, in bad faith, to target a specific and highly vulnerable group with disinformation. It shames the UK, in the international arena, as a nation dedicated to human rights, and undermines wider public trust in their Government. The site’s true nature has also been exposed, as has the government’s use of disinformation as a political tactic. Put simply, there is no valid reason for the site to remain up. 

But this is about more than the UK government’s need to save face from embarassment. As a new wave of Afghan refugees desperately seeks safety, every day the site remains online increases the chances of those individuals acting on misleading and false information. That content has likely already played a role in deterring people, who are fleeing for their lives from the Taliban, from seeking the protections which are legally available to them.

What action are we taking, and what can you do?

Since the revelation about the site’s existence, Open Rights Group have contacted the Home Office requesting that an internal review be conducted. We have also submitted a complaint to the ICO drawing attention to the ways in which the Government is engaging in digital deception and disinformation which could put migrants at direct risk of harm, particularly those fleeing Afghanistan, who are explicitly targeted on the site.

We want to urge other organisations working in the field of migration and digital rights, as well as those who have been personally affected, to make a complaint to the ICOWe’re keen to know if individuals who have already emailed the web site have been informed that the site is affiliated to the government, and whether there has been any offer of redress for the consequences of the disinformation.

We also want to encouraging our members to write to their MP to express their concerns about the “On The Move” website and demand that it is taken down. Please stress to your MP that the site is only part of the Government’s strategy against refugees and legal migration, as is evident with the Nationality and Borders Bill. The use of personal data and digital technology, as with the web site, indicates a new front in government’s tactics. If it does not end here, at the feet of those fleeing the Taliban, then where will it?

Above all, the Government must ensure that it meets its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and implement the Responsibility to Protect principle. It must also create safe and legal routes for legal migration, as migrants’ rights organisations have long called for, instead of designing web sites to spread disinformation to the least among us.

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