Digital Technologies Have Some Risks but Are Playing a Central Role in Reviving and Re-Imagining Stressed Asylum Systems
WASHINGTON — Digital technologies have played a central role in reviving asylum systems taxed by the COVID-19 pandemic—and increasingly to re-imagine how they work—with accelerating use during the identification and security check phases and greater reliance on cellphone data and speech analysis software. Asylum authorities around the world have begun to see the potential of digitalization, i.e., the incorporation of digital tools and new technologies, to tackle long-standing problems in humanitarian protection systems, including limited staff and infrastructure to swiftly register and process protection claims and differential recognition rates stemming from human error and bias.
From chatbots that help asylum seekers register their protection claims and interviews conducted remotely via video, digital tools have permeated migration, asylum and border management systems. This is particularly the case in Europe, where the 2015–16 migration and refugee crisis jumpstarted a first round of digitalization. Yet many stakeholders remain concerned about using digital tools, worried about data privacy, opaque decision-making and the dehumanization of the process.
A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, Rebooting the Asylum System? The Role of Digital Tools in International Protection, explores the opportunities and challenges these tools pose for asylum practices, procedures and the organization of protection regimes.
“Digitalization in and of itself is no universal cure, and depending on how such efforts are carried out, they could obstruct the asylum process and violate asylum seekers’ rights as easily as they could facilitate or protect them,” MPI Europe Director Hanne Beirens writes. But, she adds, “A growing list of benefits, such as speeding up processes, reducing arbitrariness in decision-making and making migration patterns more predictable, has persuaded more and more authorities to experiment with and invest in digitalization efforts.”
Realizing the full potential of technology requires continuous setting of goals and standards, as well as consistent cost-benefit analysis and monitoring and evaluation of the impact of digital tools on asylum processes, Beirens stresses.
The study identifies six key lenses through which it will be important to consider ongoing and future digitalization efforts, including whether digital tools:
- Generate efficiency gains in workflows, staffing and infrastructure, speeding up processes and enhancing the capacity of authorities to deal with larger asylum caseloads.
- Reduce arbitrariness in decision-making, with artificial intelligence supporting broader efforts to reduce human error and bias, and thus improve the quality of and increase trust in asylum judgements.
- Facilitate improved communication between agencies and with asylum seekers through online communication tools.
- Improve migration and asylum intelligence, with early warning systems and forecasting and scenario-building exercises promising to give authorities greater insight into rapidly evolving or even future humanitarian migration trends.
- Enhance the confirmation of asylum seekers’ identities and eligibility for benefits while not becoming overtaken by security-related goals, such as the fight against terrorism, crime or fraud.
- Allow for remote operation of aspects of humanitarian protection systems.
Injecting digital tools into asylum and migration systems has a profound effect on practices, procedures and a person’s chances of attaining protection, but there are limits to the role they can play in resolving these systems’ problems. For example, there are concerns that remotely operated asylum systems would pave the way for further erosion of the principle of territorial asylum.
“The fact that the physical presence of asylum seekers would no longer be a practical requirement for reviewing their grounds for protection may add fuel to proposals to do away with the system of territorial asylum and the associated legal right to seek asylum for all those who set foot on a state’s territory,” Beirens cautioned. “They may represent a tool to overcome some of the spatial, geographical and mobility barriers that to date have meant that only a fraction of people in need of humanitarian protection embark on a dangerous journey, reach their destination and are granted refuge, or they may inject new and more rigid barriers into protection systems.”
The report is part of the three-year Beyond Territorial Asylum: Making Protection Work in a Bordered World initiative undertaken by MPI and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The initiative seeks to address challenges to asylum systems that are under immense pressure and seize the opportunity to explore and test new ways to facilitate access to protection that better support equity and result in more flexible, sustainable infrastructure.
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/asylum-system-digital-tools.