The first steps are being made to transforming the monitoring process for the entry and exit of visitors to and from the UK, through the launch of the new e-Borders travel database programme. However, while the government is resolute in its position that the database is essential in the fight against crime and illegal immigration, others are claiming that it represents a compromise of personal freedoms.
The e-Borders programme will track and store the international travel records of anyone passing through UK immigration, with these computerised records set to then be stored for up to 10 years in a database. Early 2009 saw a National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC) begin operation as a hub for e-Borders, allowing the government to begin compiling travel histories for passengers.
It's a move that hasn't been without its detractors, as members of both opposition parties have been quick to judge e-Borders as another example of governmental intrusion. Shadow Home Secretary for the Conservatives, Chris Grayling, was particularly scathing in his comments that: "The government seems to be building databases to track more and more of our lives....the truth is that we have a government that just can't be trusted over these highly sensitive issues. We must not allow ourselves to become a Big Brother society."
Shadow Home Secretary for the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne, joined Mr Grayling in drawing Orwellian allusions, stating: "We are sleepwalking into a surveillance state and should remember that George Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not a blueprint."
While these comments might be a little too dramatic in tone, it's certainly true that the UK Borders Agency have done little to sway the public's fears that e-Borders will be used as a tool of security, rather than intrusion. Although some figures have been released as proof of e-Borders use in tracking dangerous criminals, most other information provided has dealt in rather broader terms, with the liberal use of buzzwords such as 'security' and 'border control' given as justification to what seems like such a drastic new introduction.
However, it should be remembered that the e-Borders programme isn't a trail-blazer by any means; countries like Australia have had similar methods of monitoring the entrants to their respective countries for some time, with the Australian ETA visa system commonly regarded as one of the most efficient short-term visa systems in the world.
The USA has also taken steps to provide a more defined structure to their already tough stance on immigration, with the recently introduced ESTA now mandatory for all entrants to the United States.
So, could it be that e-Borders is just the UK bringing its migration security up to standard with the rest of the world? Perhaps, but a definitive answer could take as long as 5 years to arrive - the e-Borders programme is only set to be fully established in monitoring the departures and arrivals of all UK travellers by 2014, meaning the debate of what it truly represents could continue for some time.
- Tom Blackett is the Online Editor for the UK Visa Bureau.
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