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AI migration tools could have inhumane consequences

A University of Exeter study has suggested that AI could “revolutionise” how international migration is managed, but warned that it could also reinforce inhumane practices and permitting discrimination.

AI is being used more and more by governments and international organisations preparing for and managing mass migration, such as by performing identity checks at borders, processing data about visa and asylum applicants.

The University of Exeter researchers predict that AI will “revolutionise” how international migration is managed.

Canada already employs algorithmic decision-making in immigration management, Germany has trialled the use of facial and dialect recognition in managing asylum cases, and the Swedish government has deployed “migration algorithms” to forecast future migration patterns. The revised Schengen Information System, which is used for security purposes in the EU’s border-free zone, will use AI tools such as facial recognition to help facilitate the return of migrants.

Although using AI tools for these purposes could make migration more efficient and fair in some ways, the analysis suggests that AI could also risk magnifying the asymmetry between the Global North and Global South and modernising some repressive practices, such as maritime interventions aiming at returning migrants and asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk.

If AI technologies for migration management are concentrated in the Global North, the researchers wrote in their Migration Studies paper, this would reinforce the divide and leave less AI-capable states more isolated. However, if countries in the Global South develop their AI capabilities, this could give them the means to exert more influence in international migration. The researchers suggested that international organisations would need to continue to play an active role in assisting the Global South with technological advances in order to bridge this “AI divide”.

The adoption of more AI tools to manage migration could have both encouraging and troubling consequence, the researchers wrote. While AI could be used to predict incoming migration crises, or to identify gaps in reception facilities (such as insufficient places for families with children), which must be filled in order to comply with international human rights law, states could also use AI tools to support non-entrée policies.

“AI is at risk of becoming another political tool, used to reinforce old state practices, which aim to curb international migration and prevent asylum-seekers from reaching their territories,” they wrote.

This could involve AI being used to streamline visa controls and identity checks in offshore facilities, as well as reinforcing unlawful practices like assisting maritime interventions aimed at returning migrants and asylum seekers to places where they may fear for their lives or freedom (outlawed by the Refugee Convention).

Dr Ana Beduschi, who carried out the research, commented: “AI technology may bring innovation, reduce costs, and build more effective systems for international migration management. However, it is important that such tools are developed and deployed within ethical and legal frameworks, in particular international human rights law.”

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