Automating border management and visa processing makes good sense, writes Geoff Heath, but immigration practitioner ‘smarts’ remain more important than ever.
Rapid advances in technology, and particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI), are re-shaping border management for most developed economies. Key drivers include cost reduction and a more seamless traveller experience at a time of rapid growth in air travel and competition for tourist markets, without compromising border integrity.
These advances are crucial for the future of border management, but there is also a need for caution. To what extent can AI effectively replace human intuition in the people movement space without compromising integrity? This article explores the value of recognising and maintaining sufficient human intuitive decision-making capability to complement the advances in technology and AI.
In the Australian context at least, maritime people smuggling and human trafficking tend to dominate dialogue around irregular migration. However, for experienced immigration practitioners there is an arguably more insidious aspect of irregular people movement that receives far less public attention. This is the independent visa applicant, usually arriving by air, with non-genuine intentions.
It must be said that the vast majority of travellers are genuine, but the numbers of those who are not can easily spiral out of control when systems and policies are inadequate. The impact of inadequately addressing this cohort is easily underestimated.
Exploring the breadth and diversity of scams in this space is well beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that they are constantly morphing to stay one step ahead of advances in technology and procedure designed to mitigate them.
These non-genuine travellers are often guided, assisted and coached in how to obtain visas and clear into destination countries under the guise of having genuine intentions, when their real intention may be to overstay, work illegally, claim asylum, engage in criminal activity or simply to exploit the destination society for personal gain.
Many are facilitated by racketeers, including a small number of unscrupulous migration agents who tarnish the reputation of the broader advice industry. Fraud may be as simple as fabricated claims, or include fraudulent documents, false identities and relationship fraud.
The modus operandi can take a variety of different forms depending on visa category and source country. In my many years dealing with visa and immigration fraud, I have seen all manner of highly-sophisticated networks exclusively devoted to getting travellers through the latest systems. In some source societies, local cultural attitudes may not view visa fraud as unacceptable and may even condone the practice.
The more pragmatic will argue that some non-genuine travellers are the price to pay for reducing border management costs and achieving more seamless travel. There is logic in this, and managing risk often involves a degree of calculated losses. But if inadequately addressed, facilitators of non-genuine entry soon find and exploit the weaknesses in border processes, with the results of their efforts a difficult and costly issue to reverse.
The stakes are in fact higher than many realise. An illegal worker, overstayer or failed asylum seeker can be very expensive to locate, manage and repatriate. A successful fraudulent migration application that slips through the cracks brings a lifetime of benefits, including eventually the right to citizenship, not to mention the place they have taken in limited migration intakes at the expense of someone more deserving.
And if a fraudulent migration applicant succeeds in gaining unfair advantage, there is a high chance that their propensity to engage in fraud will extend to accessing other government benefits. Even short-term illegal workers risk displacing local workers and diminishing safety standards and employment conditions.
The stakes are especially high when dealing with cases involving children, where fraud can equally be found around parentage, custody, adoption or citizenship by descent. The numbers may be a small percentage, but any incorrect decision concerning a child is one too many.
Experienced immigration practitioners are quick to point out that border management starts well before the actual border entry point. A long-term adage describes border management as a series of “onion rings”, the first being (in broad terms) the visa application process in the source country, the second being the boarding process at the last port of embarkation, with the third being screening at the actual border entry point.
Monitoring, compliance and removal make up some of the post-arrival layers of border management.
The transition to online visa applications sees less face-to-face client contact and original documents. Despite these essential changes, with effective technology and AI correctly referring high-risk or suspect visa applicants offline for closer scrutiny, the first “onion ring” does not have to be a redundant concept.
There is no question that advances in biometrics in its various forms (facial recognition, fingerprints, gait, to name a few) are already playing a major role in reducing identity fraud. However, this is essentially limited to identifying identity changes occurring after the first biometrics are captured.
Assessing baggage and cargo is a highly-specialised field in itself that is also benefitting from rapid advances in technology, but there are fundamental differences to assessing a person’s right of entry. Ultimately baggage either contains contraband – or it does not. When assessing genuine travellers and their right of entry at visa application or entry control point, the official is generally faced with determining a person’s state of mind – a not so objective task.
Their decision often relies on what the passenger intends to do after they are approved or cleared, not necessarily on what they have done. There may not always be tangible indicators.
AI is very effective in identifying patterns or trends to suggest a person fits a known profile, but ultimately it is unlikely to be very intuitive where a more subjective assessment is required.
Tourists and visitors tend to attract a disproportionate slice of the scrutiny. Longer-term entrants such as students or migrants often need even more subjective evaluation. These visa streams can be targeted by experienced scammers and opportunists because of the longer-term visa validity and associated benefits. How effective is technology and AI in assessing a “genuine partner relationship”, whether someone intends a genuine stay as a student, or weighing up a person’s character?
There is an added dimension to assessing a visa applicant’s or traveller’s intention that separates it from other border management tasks. Their genuine intention or otherwise could change at any point in the continuum, from visa application to boarding the aircraft to entry clearance point, and well beyond if tied to visa conditions post-arrival.
As one example, a genuine traveller may decide to make an asylum claim only after entering and being coached by others.
Identifying and dealing with visa and migration fraud is by nature very intuitive. It is a skill that is not easy to teach. Good assessors often start out as quite gullible and begin to build their “smarts” only once they have been gypped by the first few fraudulent clients, with their skills enhanced over time. Even experienced immigration practitioners constantly encounter new scams designed to outsmart the latest systems, many extremely sophisticated.
There is a clear danger of failing to acknowledge the importance of immigration practitioner “smarts” in the rush towards automating border management. There is a risk that over time automation could even de-skill client-facing practitioners in the basic skills of assessing client integrity.
Australia’s current government is in the process of outsourcing visa processing (as opposed to visa application lodgement that has been in place for some years). It remains to be seen how such an arrangement with the private sector will effectively incorporate the human intuitive capability needed to complement automation.
Invariably, the latest technological advances in the border management space are the domain of developed economies. But even developed economies can have their borders weakened by neighbours with ineffective systems or processes, which is why many rightly invest in capacity building programs.
Opportunists are increasingly taking advantage of small and emerging economies’ weaker border and process-driven visa assessment regimes to exploit their resources, people and accepting nature, with potential downstream detrimental effects on their society and economy. This may even be encouraged by some source countries as a way of spreading their influence.
Developments in AI present incredible opportunities to manage large numbers of visa applicants and travellers more efficiently, but it is also inherently non-intuitive. There is clear danger in failing to acknowledge the continuing importance of practitioner skill, talent and ability in the process.
Indeed, it is these very “smarts” that will always be needed to ensure that AI algorithms will be agile enough to anticipate scammers constantly shifting the goalposts. Recognising, maintaining and building on these skills so they can complement AI is crucial to effectively address irregular people movement into the future.
Geoff Heath is the founder of LabourPulse, a start-up developing migration integrity capability programs and related services. Geoff served as a detective in the Queensland Police Service followed by 26 years with Australia’s immigration and border protection portfolio, mostly in the risk, fraud and integrity space, including a number of overseas postings. He has led or been involved in numerous irregular migration management projects in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and is recognised for his ability to negotiate positive outcomes in cross-cultural contexts, often where fraud and corruption is endemic. He is also an experienced cultural capability consultant with a focus on the law enforcement and compliance space.