How will the National Data Strategy affect migrants and refugees?

In early September the government launched its National Data Strategy (NDS) which it described as ‘an ambitious, pro-growth strategy that aims to drive the UK in building a world-leading data economy while ensuring public trust in data use.’ 

The strategy provides a framework for how the government plans to manage the flow of information through the economy, public sector and society and also how it will use this information not only internally but across the public sector. 

The Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden used the government’s response to Coronavirus as an example of how it had showed what could be achieved when sharing data quickly, efficiently and ethically, which has raised a lot of eyebrows. 

Of course, the government’s use of data for the purposes of immigration enforcement is an example of what can happen when data is misused. Erosion of public trust in data use is just one consequence. 

This is why it would be a mistake to consider the National Data Strategy without thinking of the context of the Hostile Environment and the immigration exemption, which restricts the personal data and privacy of EU citizens protected under GDPR for immigration purposes.

Data affects our daily lives and can have both positive and negative impacts on individuals and society as a whole. Those from marginalised and / or vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees often face a disproportionate negative impact. 

The use of data and new technologies by governments in immigration policy and procedures is increasing and impacting the rights of migrants and refugees. In the UK, we’ve already seen the government use data for the surveillance and control of migrants and refugees.

Regarding the National Data Strategy, the government is currently running an open consultation until Wednesday 2 December. It has stated that they ‘are keen that stakeholders contribute to the framing and core principles of the strategy.’ 

It is expected that technologists, privacy advocates and academics will respond to the consultation raising concerns about privacy, security and data adequacy. However, the use of data is a concern for the whole of society. Civil society organisations working for equality and justice should also respond to raise concerns about the social impact of the strategy. 

Rachel Coldicutt, a technology strategist specialising in the social impact of new and emerging technologies says that “the strategy will likely have implications for human rights and human agency”. It is crucial that migrants’ rights organisations and those with lived experience play a role in shaping the strategy. This is to ensure that the strategy doesn’t exacerbate the inequalities their clients already face or present further challenges and obstacles, but aims to improve matters.

Last month, Rachel published a highly informative Policy briefing note for community and social sector organisations explaining the social impact of the strategy. Several concerns were expressed including: “fairness” and data; representation and bias in government data; multi-agency data-sharing; cross-sector data-sharing; and individual trust and responsibility. 

The strategy is about how decisions will be made but it lacks clarity as to how the government is going to use the information it collects to inform policy decisions and how it intends to mitigate against data-driven bias and discrimination based on the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010. This is a really important point especially because the strategy states – in several places – that there are “legal barriers (real and perceived)” to accessing and sharing peoples data which must be addressed raising concerns that in the future the government could move to change to the law. 

There is also the issue of representation in government data. It’s already known that migrants and refugees are considered to be a key vulnerable group in data meaning that there is no clear data and that it contains gaps which has implications for policy decisions. 

How is the government going to improve the quality of the data it has on migrants and refugees and fill these gaps? The strategy lacks details about how it is going to address the other challenges and opportunities data-based decision-making presents such as transparency and accountability-essential for trust-as well as ethical dilemmas which makes it hard to see how it will achieve the opportunity ‘Creating a fairer society for all.’

This government has made plenty of errors regarding people’s personal data, particularly data belonging to migrants and refugees. In 2018, the Windrush scandal was not only about the way data was shared but that the data used was inaccurate leading to decisions that had serious consequences for people’s lives.

Indeed, the destruction of vital personal data people needed to rely on was an extremely serious and deliberate policy choice, leading to many of the problems people then experienced, as they were unable to provide the government with the data it had itself destroyed.

Another well known example was the government’s secret data-sharing deal made in 2016, which ended in 2018, that allowed the NHS to share confidential patient data with the Home Office for immigration enforcement. This deterred migrants and refugees from seeking medical care – a basic human right. 

Then, this summer the Home Office was forced to stop using an algorithm which prevented people of certain nationalities having their visa approved. 

All of this has eroded trust in the government, well beyond just the data handling. In order to restore trust in data use the government must make it explicitly clear how it is going to protect, assist and provide assistance to vulnerable and marginalised groups. In her Policy briefing note Rachel also makes the following recommendation:

A data-driven Britain must have safeguards in place to make sure innovation works for everyone, regardless of age, race, sex, gender, health or economic opportunity. One practical step to mitigate against this is to appoint specialist Data Commissioners, who can represent and champion minoritised communities by scrutinising and improving the collection and management of data, understanding potential social implications, and ensuring transparency around data-driven decisions. 

Open Rights Group is encouraging the migrants’ rights sector to engage with the strategy and has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport expressing concerns about how the strategy as it currently stands will affect migrants and refugees and supporting the recommendation above. If you would like to add your name to this letter, please send an email to Sahdya Darr, Immigration Policy Manager at:

Rachel is co-ordinating a community and social sector response and will be publishing a short open letter with a number of signatories in which she will express general equality and social justice concerns pertaining to the strategy. She is keen for charity and social sector leaders to sign this letter. If you would like to input into the response and/or sign the letter, please email her; contact details are at the foot of her web page.

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