Major new museum exhibition addresses UK asylum process

Published 15 January 2021 / By COMPAS Communications

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An interactive installation commissioned by the Imperial War Museums as part of their exhibition Refugee: Forced to Flee looks at an imaginary future world where international movement is policed by intelligent machines.

"A Face To Open Doors" is a public-facing, inter-disciplinary project produced by the creative studio Anagram that explores the often-murky dynamics of asylum decision-making and the effects of machine learning on human mobility.

The interactive artistic exhibit invites participants to take part in a short series of tests administered by an AI border guard.

Visitors to the exhibit enter a pop-up immigration booth that is ‘an artefact from a future society’ where they are assessed by an AI Immigration officer. While a series of videos play, the camera tracks their facial responses and they are asked to perform specific emotions to determine their credibility.

The experience reveals that the participant is being tested on not only the content of their answers, but also how they tell their story – a predicament familiar to asylum-seekers in the UK. Using facial scanning and emotion detection, the machine processes its visitor’s responses and passes judgement on their claim.

Denis Kierans of The Migration Observatory and the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity at COMPAS contributed to the project by providing guidance on the UK immigration system, border controls, how the asylum adjudication process works in the UK, and how biases affect these outcomes.

“Coming to grips with how border controls and the UK’s immigration and asylum systems work is a task unto itself. Communicating this to the public in a meaningful way is even more difficult. Initially, the project struck me as an innovative way to engage with the public on these complex topics. What I didn’t realise at the time was how rewarding the collaboration with Anagram, IWM and academics from other disciplines would be. Each of us brought our quite different perspective and expertise to the table. What emerged is a piece of work that I believe is cohesive, thought-provoking and fun. We are hoping to build on the exhibit with research and other engagement activities.”

Inspired by technological trials currently taking place within the real-world immigration industry, the installation invites visitors to consider the role of emotion and bias within the systems used to process people fleeing conflict, and the consequences of automation within the asylum machine.

Installed and free to visit (once museums re-open) at IWM in Lambeth, London until 24 May 2021 - after which the piece will tour. For more information: