While the world watches

A piece I wrote about my experience of immigration laws in the UK and the rise of social media monitoring in legal cases. I just found out I got a first for this so that gives me validation that it’s hopefully a semi-interesting read!

How many times have you accidentally lost hours of your life to social networking? It’s all too easy to sit browsing that never ending Twitter feed or scrutinizing Facebook profiles, looking through photos, comments and getting that sly sense of satisfaction that you are spying on what’s happening in other people’s lives and nobody will ever know. What the average Facebook, Twitter or Instagram user probably doesn’t consider is how the content they post online isn’t so private when the government has reason to be involved. Would you behave differently if you knew that you would have to provide screenshot’s of every photo you and your partner were tagged in, every life event updates, every tweet mentioning them and every message that you have you’ve sent to each other, to a complete stranger who decides if you are legitimate or not.

For anybody applying for a leave to remain in the UK through Home Office, be prepared to disclose a lot of personal information. You probably knew this already, alas if you are unaware of what documentation is required of applicants, it is essentially: financials for the past six months, proof of address, proof of job and proof of relationship. However, it is within this last section that there has been a recently updated criterion for the documentation. It is now a government requirement that applicants supply social media proof of their relationship too.

The necessity of this information is arguable and it is both shocking and fascinating to learn how important social media is to government evaluations. Social media has been a factor in immigration cases for the past six or seven years. As social media popularity grew and people started to sharing their personal lives online, it has become clear that social media evidence can distinctively  strengthen the validity of certain cases. Although this is true, being asked to provide this evidence is a direct breach of privacy rights and lays bare the applicants’ relationship as if they had opted for open-heart surgery.

It’s shocking to learn that a marriage alone is deemed as insignificant when assessing an immigration case, and it is the documentation provided that the caseworkers at Home Office uses to base their ultimate decision. Immigration case representative *Michelle, who accompanies visa applicants to Lunar House on the day of their appointment said about the matter, “It’s quite invasive yes, because it’s not as if a couple take photo’s of themselves just for the sake of it to put on Facebook. Some couples have cultural restrictions as well so they don’t openly communicate on the site.”

If you research further into the topic you can find more information on social media evidence, but overall there is very little written about the topic. Colin Yeo – a UK immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers: “If you are on Facebook or other social media, take note: the government is watching. Reports do verify that officials look at social media when investigating the validity of a relationship.” What is shocking is that applicants are not informed that they will have to disclose social media evidence until they proceed to enlist the help of immigration specialists. It is already an invasive and degrading experience to prove the legitimacy of the relationship and all of the documentation that is required. The social media requirement on top of this feels like an intervention too far.

If the government can request to see social media to prove a relationship then what are the boundaries if any for more serious cases? Whether it is the government, Mr Zuckerberg, or a complete stranger who has gained access to your profile through incorrect privacy settings, this goes to show that nothing shared online is guaranteed private.

Zuckerberg recently expressed his views on privacy settings and the US government on his Facebook page where he wrote a long letter to his 26,011,957 followers, describing his ‘confusion and frustration’ at “the repeated reports of the behaviour of the government. When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government.” He went on to write that the government need to be ‘much more transparent about what they are doing, otherwise people will believe the worst’.

I believe that this last statement is very true. For couples trying to obtain a visa to keep them in the same country, or for other legal purposes, the government should be more open about why they wish to see this evidence and what constitutes appropriate or inconclusive evidence. They should respect that the Internet is a forum mainly used by younger people to express themselves comfortably. It should be respected for the amazing technological breakthrough that it is, and not used against us as a portrayal of real life. Of course all evidence helps when it comes to making a decision on a person being granted a visa for a country, but I wonder what the majority of the general public would say and feel about providing social media proof for their relationships if under those circumstances. Relationships shouldn’t need to be proven to anyone except the people involved, and the whole Immigration procedure in the UK is somewhat emotionless and degrading. Even the Lunar House building in Croydon where the Visa’s are issued has a tired looking exterior and a waiting room resembling a bus station from the 1990’s.

Whilst there I spoke to Hamayoun, a Pakistani applicant at Lunar House who was applying for leave to remain in the UK with his newly married British wife. He explained how the whole process has quite honestly been a headache from the start and how he never imagined having to go through a process quite as invasive as this when he was younger and thinking about the future. You can’t help whom you fall in love with and we live in such a wonderfully diverse capital that allows people from different sides of the world to discover each other.

Although sham marriages are fairly common in the UK purely for British citizenship, I find it very hard to understand how it could be executed without being found out due to the amount of in depth documentation a case requires. For the sake of the innocent couples going through the process they should be made more aware of what is going to be required of them on the Home Office official website with an explanation of how this weighs the case. I never thought that I would get married, let alone marry someone who wasn’t from the same country as me, but as the saying goes ‘life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get’. I can’t explain the feeling of relief and joy when the lady in Home Office gave a nonchalant nod when we asked with bated breath if the application had been approved after a four-hour wait, but the moments after leaving the building were unforgettable. It was 100x more meaningful that handing in my dissertation or finishing my degree turned out to be, because it felt like we had finally proved ourself and had the OK from Britain for our marriage, which we always knew, but had to fight for since the beginning.



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