Visa decision-making algorithms – how do they work?

“Algorithm” is a word that has become part of general parlance over the last year or two. Algorithms, so they say, can in some situations save a lot of time by carrying out complex calculations very quickly.

Not everyone knows this, but British diplomatic posts use algorithms in their visa application decision-making. But it was not really a secret: the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in a report published in 2017 explained about this in at least some detail.

When confronted with a visa application someone inputs some information about the applicant into the computer, presses the button and the algorithm happens. It operates as a “streaming tool”, which operates rather like traffic lights. Applications are streamed into three: red (high risk), amber (medium risk) and green (low risk).

In this case, the most obvious “risk” is surely that the applicant might not intend to return home on expiry of the visa – something that comes into particularly sharp focus with visitor visas.

So an application is immediately put into an indicative category but nonetheless the decision-making entry clearance officer (ECO) can override the algorithm when they make the final decision if they see fit.

But what sort of factors does the algorithm take into account? The Home Office claim that the system does not stream “on the basis of race”.

Well, that sounds nice but the fact is that the ethos of visa application decision-making is to a significant extent about if not exactly race then certainly nationality. Some nationalities always need visitor visas to come to the UK but some can just turn up at the airport. And, to take the subject a bit further, some nationalities can effortlessly sail through e-gates at the airport but some cannot. And, to take it a bit further still, some nationalities of Tier 4 students have to provide all the documentary evidence with their applications but other nationalities do not.

Anyway, leaving aside these interesting philosophical contradictions, the Home Office also says that it does not want to reveal too much information about the algorithms because they fear that this would make it easier for people to submit dishonest applications. And thus a mood of sinister secrecy is created.

We can no doubt safely assume that the algorithm takes into account previous immigration history, but what other factors might be taken into account? Family members or lack of them in the home country? Employment status? This we do not know, although we can guess.

But what we do know is that ECOs have to take a very high volume of decisions. The Chief Inspector’s report at one point refers to visitor visa applications being made in an average of just over three minutes. The Chief Inspector said (not unreasonably in our opinion) that “which even for an experienced decision maker allows little time for careful consideration of the evidence”.

Our experience shows that where complex evidence has to be considered as part of a visitor visa application the ECOs quite often get it wrong, and we strongly suspect – from the style and quality of the decisions – that this is in many cases because they simply do not have enough time to do them properly.

So if the streaming tool really does save time it seems that it has not saved enough of it. But in any event the Chief Inspector did not thoroughly condemn the concept of the streaming tool. What he did say was a bit softer, ie that there was “a risk that the streaming tool becomes a de facto decision-making tool”.

We take this to mean that he perceived a danger that ECOs may not override the initial decision of the streaming tool even if that decision was flawed.

It seems to us that visitor visa applications are particularly vulnerable to potential problems that the streaming tool may have introduced. Such applications are in some ways difficult to measure. The ECO asks themselves: Is an applicant a “genuine” visitor? Or do they have some darker motive? They are in many cases intrinsically hard to assess and it might be tempting to rely on the traffic light system.

What we can say for certain is that visitor visas are not “easy” (as some people seem to think) and it makes a lot of sense to instruct a good lawyer to prepare your application. Once you get one refusal on your record it seems to make things more difficult in future than they were already.