IDC’s New Workstream on Technologies, Detention & Alternatives to Detention (ATD)

Whether we like it or not, when it comes to migration governance digital technologies are here to stay. From customer service portals to collection of biometric data, forecasting models to face recognition tools, over the past two decades such technologies have been increasingly used by governments across the world in the conception and design of their migration systems. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated this trend.

Yet, these types of technology are never neutral. There is no such thing as a technical ‘fix’ to a complex problem, and efforts by some to portray digital technology as the solution to human bias have been shown to be at best naïve, at worst dangerous. When Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital technologies are employed, this is a political choice. But the people deciding rarely experience these policies themselves. It is people on the move, as well as their families and communities, who ultimately find themselves at the ‘sharp edges’, subject to policies and practices that they have no control over and little to no agency in shaping.

Technology & (Alternatives to) Immigration Detention

Immigration detention and alternatives to immigration detention (ATD) have been acutely impacted by the expanded use of technologies in migration governance systems. For instance, certain digital technologies utilised within the carceral system (e.g. ‘Smart Prisons’) are now being adopted in the context of immigration detention. Meanwhile, technologies such as electronic monitoring and facial and voice recognition are being used or explored by a growing number of governments, ostensibly as part of their efforts to move away from the widespread use of immigration detention and put in place ATD. While this may seem like progress, these trends raise serious concerns for IDC. 

Information surrounding the use of tech in ATD – and its impacts on people – remains largely confined to data from a few key countries (namely Canada, the UK and the USA). But we know that an increasing number of governments are contemplating the idea of employing such tech, if not already actively using it. In the European Union, for instance, Denmark, Hungary, Luxembourg and Portugal have all established the use of electronic tagging in law or administrative regulations. Turkey, meanwhile, has included electronic monitoring on a list of authorised ATD included within amendments to the Law on Foreigners and International Protection made in 2019 (but yet to be implemented).

IDC members working with communities and individuals affected by detention or at risk of detention, have been increasingly expressing concerns about the growing use of such technologies in the immigration detention space. People at risk of immigration detention are particularly vulnerable to the misuses of digital tech; they often have precarious immigration status and thus little ability to assert their own rights if technology is abused. 

Over the coming months IDC plans to launch a workstream focused specifically on the use of technology and AI in immigration detention and ATD. In particular, we aim to examine:

Alternative Forms of Detention & De Facto Detention

On the whole, research to date has focused on how States have used digital technologies to further restrict people’s liberties, undermine their human rights, and increase surveillance and enforcement. This has been labelled “techno-carcerality” in the context of the Canadian government’s ATD programme, and represents “the shift from traditional modes of confinement to less traditional ones, grounded in mobile, electronic, and digital technologies.” A report on the Intensive Supervision Appearance Programme (ISAP) in the USA stated that its electronic monitoring components amount to “digital detention.”

Over the years, IDC has warned against the use of alternative forms of detention – which are de facto deprivation of liberty, simply detention by another name – and the potential for the term ATD to be co-opted and used as a smokescreen for such initiatives. Specifically regarding electronic tagging, IDC has been clear:

IDC classifies electronic tagging as an alternative form of detention rather than an alternative to detention, as it substantially curtails (and sometimes completely denies) liberty and freedom of movement, leading to de facto detention. It is often used in the context of criminal law and has been shown to have considerable negative impacts on people’s mental and physical health, leading to discrimination and stigmatisation.

More broadly, electronic monitoring devices pose a threat to personal liberty as a result of heightened surveillance and indiscriminate data collection. We know, too, that voice and facial recognition technologies have questionable accuracy, especially for communities that are racialised. This can lead to mistakes that have serious and irreversible consequences – including detention, deportation, and the separation of families and loved ones.

Tech as a Way to Improve Engagement?

Yet there are also some anecdotal reports that the use of digital technologies in ATD can have some benefits for people on the move. One notable example is the shift in the UK from in-person reporting to telephone reporting. This approach was originally tested during the pandemic, and then adopted on a more permanent basis in large part due to sustained advocacy from campaign groups. IDC has heard accounts from people subject to reporting requirements that this shift has helped ease in-person reporting requirements that were onerous, expensive and disruptive to their livelihoods and schooling. Moreover, places such as police stations and reporting centres often cause people increased anxiety that they will be redetained; limited physical contact with such places is likely to have a positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Of course, as one of the groups campaigning for this change stated, “[t]elephone reporting itself could be equally burdensome if implemented without care.” It is essential that people are provided with the means to report in this way (for instance with support to buy a telephone and credit), and that the consequences for missing a call are not harsh; otherwise, this type of reporting can have negative impacts on people. Moreover, whilst the use of phones is a relatively rudimentary form of technology, it is important that tools such as voice or face recognition are avoided for the reasons mentioned above.

Lived Experience of Tech-Based ‘ATD’

IDC’s main impetus for launching this new workstream on technology, immigration detention and ATD has come from our members, and in particular the experiences and insights of leaders with lived experience and community organisers on the ground who we engage with on an ongoing basis. Through this workstream, in particular, we hope to explore the impact that this technology is having on people’s lives, wellbeing, and futures. Since our founding almost 15 years ago, IDC has been advocating for ATD as a way of moving towards migration governance systems that do not use detention and – crucially – ensure that people on the move have the agency and the ability to meaningfully engage with such systems.

Therefore, we hope to understand not only how tech can be harmful to people on the move, but also if and how it can help to increase positive and meaningful engagement. This will help IDC to better assess how to partner with others to push back on certain types of technologies, and also where innovations might open up opportunities for people with lived experience in terms of improvements to services, information provision, and communication. This will include looking at the impact of digital technologies through an intersectional lens, and understanding that people’s diverse and intersecting identities mean that their experiences of such technologies vary greatly.

Accountability & Due Process

Last but not least, the question of accountability – and the distinct but related issue of due process – is one that we are hoping to explore through this programme of work. Use of AI and tech in the migration governance sphere is notorious for lacking transparency, which is potentially very harmful, particularly when methods are being implemented towards people who struggle to access their fundamental rights and legal recourse. Additionally, ATD themselves can lack key safeguards that allow for due process. The right to appeal and review a decision to detain is often expected in detention (whether or not it is respected in practice), however the same is not necessarily true when somebody is placed in an ATD programme. Where restrictions are imposed, including those linked to digital technology, these should be subject to rigorous review, and the right to appeal should be standard.

When technology is used to increase people’s freedom of movement and ability to access information, as well as to increase their agency and support their empowerment, it has the potential to uphold key human rights and standards. However, when the primary purpose of digital technologies is to expand surveillance and enforcement-based monitoring, it has the opposite effect and leads to the curtailment of rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, given the increasing tendency of many states across the world to adopt migration governance systems based on criminalisation, coercion, control, and deterrence, their growing use of technologies risks exacerbating what are already restrictive, harmful and unaccountable systems. 

IDC will learn and build upon some of the excellent research that already exists, and we will compile resources and develop insights for our members and partners. Our ambition is that, by getting to grips with this issue, we can support the growing movement to ensure that use of technology in the immigration detention and ATD space does not lead to a further erosion of human rights and dignity for migrant, refugee, and asylum seeking communities.


Written by Hannah Cooper IDC Europe Regional Coordinator and Carolina Gottardo IDC Executive Director. IDC would encourage anyone interested in collaborating on this workstream to get in touch with us; we look forward to connecting with others on this crucial issue.