São Paulo, January 1st, 2030.
Another year has gone by. Balance of feelings: frustration, sadness and an everlasting ray of hope. A esperança é a última que morre we say. Today a new president should take office in Brasília. This would have supposed fair elections last year. And four years ago. And four years before that. Instead, Brazil has fallen into the authoritarian populist trap, and we remain stuck with General M. It has now been twelve years since dictatorship-lover Capitan B. democratically took over Palacio do Planalto. Nine years since his opportunistic even-further-right military vice-president arranged his stay in power following the President’s death. How did we get here? It started by approving an act against terrorism, targeting primarily leftist social movements. It was soon used to justify closing the borders during the Venezuelan crisis to stop any “communist militant” from infiltrating soon-to-be-glorious-again Brazil. Then they dismantled the main press conglomerates, because…well, fake news. Then militaries and neo-Pentecostal were “elected” heads of our 27 states, and became the large majority in Congress. Extreme statements and policies progressively discouraged most of foreign investors. Today, our routines involve low paying jobs for the (very) lucky, arbitrary arrests and a few disappearances. Rampant violence. And corruption. Unfortunately, chaos is far from being limited to Brazil. I wonder if Pinker would still call this time as the most peaceful of human history. This past decade singles out for its genocides… Myanmar, Yemen, Venezuela, Honduras, Salvador, DRC, CAR…to name a few. With Europe and North-America completely withdrawing from the 1951 Refugee Convention, emerging economies became the primary destination of cohorts of migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing either violence or starvation. Or both. Statistics still seem unbelievable: the overall number of migrants and refugees has quadrupled over the past 15 years and now represents 40% of the population worldwide.
When we observed this trend years ago, it did seem like an area of opportunity for social good: the number of asylum applications was increasing exponentially and countries were not able to keep up with the demand. Asylum requests’ backlog was growing every month, in Latin America, Africa, Europe, US, Canada and elsewhere. We nearly automatized the assessment process by standardizing Country of Information databases to run a high performance fact-checking algorithm. In addition, our fast track system conceived for ‘easy cases’ allowed applicants from countries with an acknowledged in crisis to have an earlier and shorter interview. Our tool reduced the overall length of the asylum procedure by four. In Brazil and Mexico, our pilot countries, we virtually wiped out the backlog. Over 50% of requests were approved (an increase compared to previous years) and 30% were redirected towards immigration services to apply for another status.
Our pilot standardized Country of Information database was first implemented and used in Brazil, and over the course of a few years, and through a partnership with key European NGOs, it ended up being adopted by nearly 90% of countries. It was hosted in Europe, it was GDPR compliant. How could we have imagined such a high-level behind the scenes agreement between the most powerful to turn this official database into a center of misinformation used to reject nearly all asylum procedures? Any person daring to raise that hypothesis would have been laughed at and accused of childish conspiratorial theories. Combined with the fast-tracking system, which ended up being used to expedite the rejection of the ‘easy cases’, our technology was used as a highly efficient tool to sustain anti-immigration / asylum policies.
Of course, we had initially talked with ethics and legal scholars, migration and refugee specialists and other well-intentioned advisors. Concerns about refugees’ privacy, information (and power) imbalance between asylum seekers and governments, questions about whether it was fair or not to benefit certain nationalities and the consequences for the non-priority cases were raised. We held extensive brainstorm sessions about the potential misuses of our technology. But nobody saw it coming. The problem wasn’t really the technology itself. The truth is that nobody believed that the world would take such a drastic turn to the extreme-right. Nobody believed that international treaties would be so disregarded. Not in the 2030 Agenda era: Sustainable development for all countries, human rights, gender equality, climate change, protection of vulnerable populations… International migration was supposedly a critical concern for the implementation of the SDG Agenda. This year, all countries should have eradicated poverty and inequalities, our cities would be prosperous and breathable, our forests green, and refugees protected. I guess the right to asylum was just the first of the many of our principles to be neglected in governments’ journeys to neo-authoritarianism.
Assignment Week 9: IDEO cards
I used the “Flow analysis” card to represent the flow of information throughout the asylum procedure in Brazil (see image above). It allowed to map the bottlenecks (and corresponding lengths) in the procedure, the main information products associated with each stage (questionnaires, etc.) and actors involved. The flow diagram was also useful during the interviews, both to explain to interviewees the solutions we are imagining but also to structure the conversation. The next step would be creating the “ideal flow”, incorporating proposed solutions.