The UK’s response to those fleeing Ukraine shows that the Home Office’s shift to ‘digital by design
‘ contains serious risks. It has encountered two specific problems: access to the Ukraine Family Scheme
and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme
, and effective processing. These bring together two of Public Law Project’s (PLP’s) strategic priorities: the immigration system and public authority use of technology.
At the time of writing, the UN estimates
that around 6.7m people have fled Ukraine. While EU states are offering refuge without a formal application process, the UK has firmly maintained the requirement for those fleeing Ukraine to secure visas. The application processes are mostly online and visas are available only for the family members of British citizens (or people with permanent status in the UK) and those who are sponsored through the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.
The current position is a revision of the Home Office’s original policy, which had an in-person element, requiring applicants to attend a visa application centre (VAC) to provide biometrics before travelling to the UK. The change required Ukrainians with international passports to complete the entire application online, which the Home Office stated was in the interests of efficiency, bypassing the need to visit ‘overwhelmed’ VACs
. Yet the announcement did not acknowledge the possible difficulties of relying heavily on digital systems to provide individuals with refuge. Instead, the shift to digital-only application routes was presented as a solution to the challenges Ukrainians have faced in their attempts to enter the UK.
For holders of international passports, access to both schemes now rests on the presumption that those who are displaced and vulnerable will have a secure and reliable internet connection and the necessary identification documents. It is also not clear how many Ukrainians will be subject to this policy change as there is no clear data on the number of Ukrainians that have international passports. For those without international passports, the VAC barrier will remain, and because Ukrainian nationals are able to travel to countries such as Turkey and the Baltic states using just a Ukrainian ID card, it is thought that the number is likely to be high.
There are also significant delays in the processing of visas after they have been applied for online. The home secretary announced that the objective of online application was to ‘streamline the process’
, but almost one month after the policy change, only 51 per cent of the visa applications submitted had been processed and issued
. Behind the 38,900 outstanding applications was at least the same number of individuals attempting to find safety, demonstrating a worrying over-reliance by the Home Office on digital systems that are unable to solve urgent issues.
With huge numbers of people fleeing Ukraine and the need for governments to respond promptly, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to roll out policy quickly without minor faults, but it illustrates broader concerns over the Home Office’s continual shift toward ‘digital by default’
. There is a significant difference in the levels of impact that can result from the digitalisation of public administrative systems, and the advantages of digitalising such services should not come at the cost of the protection of individuals, particularly those already in vulnerable situations. For example, earlier this year, the European Migration Network published a joint report with the OECD, The use of digitalisation and artificial intelligence in migration management
(February 2022), alerting policymakers to the challenges that end-users face when completing digital application forms on mobile phone interfaces, uploading the required documents and the often high costs of accessing data where Wi-Fi is unavailable.
The Home Office must take account of these limitations at each stage of digitalisation and while it works towards its ambition of continually increasing digital take-up
. Recent assurances that digital processes are more adaptable appear to be merging into a rigid approach to digitalisation, widening inequalities and veering towards a policy of ‘digital always’
. But technology cannot solve all administrative problems, and flexibility must be brought back into the fold.
Where public services are to rely heavily on digital access, it is the government’s responsibility to consider thoroughly what challenges may arise in the specific circumstances of the end-users. Public bodies must remain conscious of the need to combine digital systems with in-person and individual support to ensure that digitalisation does not come at the cost of access to justice.