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Immigration detention: what's the problem with privatisation?

Updated Monday, 25 April 2016
Who's profitting from the misery of the detainees? This article questions the issue of privatisation in Immigration Removal Centres.

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Misery as business cartoon, society matters For many immigration activists, academic scholars, researchers and journalists, the treatment of people seeking asylum has been of grave concern for a long, long time. The increased criminalisation of this group is well documented, as is the adverse impact of inadequate welfare, destitution, no right to work, and inconsistent decision making on part of the Home Office. Whilst a growing number of individuals are left in limbo, the government has actively promoted destitution as a policy to encourage returns - it has become increasingly evident that the system itself highly problematic.

However, the one aspect of the asylum process which has drawn most attention recently is that of immigration detention, perhaps the most widely recognised area of contention in the British asylum system. While the plethora of in-depth research on this area can be found elsewhere (see Border Criminologies), it is worth saying that around 30,000 people pass through Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) every year, facilities which incarcerate people who are not convicted of crimes, but whose claims have not been accepted. Apart from the obvious assault on liberty inherent in such practices, immigration detention has been plagued with reports of violence, sexual abuse, deaths in custody, and other rights’ violations.

So it is clear that there are causes for concern in relation to immigration detention. Confinement in and of itself is harmful, and the loss of liberty and autonomy can have significant impacts on people held in IRCs. As such, the fact that detention has meant big business for big companies should come as a surprise and yet as we can see below, the privatisation of the IRC complex has been in flow for decades.

A short history of the outsourcing of detention

In 1971, the British government decided to halt the ‘flow’ of non-white migration from the former colonial states into the UK, alongside the implementation of a series of restrictive measures (which has since included virginity testing, x-ray screening of minors and the increased imprisonment of illegalised, mostly non-white migrants). It was during this period that the Conservative government contracted Securicor – which later merged with Group 4 Falck, now G4S - to manage detention facilities in Harmondsworth near Heathrow airport and a second one near Manchester airport. In 1971, Securicor Group Limited and Security Services Limited were also listed on the London Stock Exchange. Ten years later, in 1981, Securicor Chair Peter Smith was awarded the OBE for services to the ‘security industry’. This was just the beginning of new relationship between state and security companies that policed for profits.

Between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, amidst the ideological move toward neoliberalism, at least two prisons were contracted out to private security companies, along with Campsfield House detention centre.  Although the party had promised to withdraw their involvement, a promise made during Labour election campaigns, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw entered into new privately financed prison deals. In fact, the majority of the detention sites were constructed and managed by these companies during Blair (and later Brown) administrations. Historically, economic reasoning has been used to justify the trust in private sector and that services offered by them are ‘efficient’ and ‘dynamic’. However, it rather difficult to trace any substantive literature or research that can confidently demonstrate that privatization gives better value for money (or superior services for less-costs) and there is nothing to reassure us that privatisation will not drive irresponsible profit-making in this area.  On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests the opposite.

Throughout New Labour’s administration (followed by Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition in 2010), several reports on excessive use of force and physical violence against detainees/deportees by Detention Custody Officers (DCO) and immigration escorts continued to emerge. According to a 2008 Medical Justice report, a number of people alleging assault were able to bring civil action cases, some of which were settled out of court. However, none of the security guards or their employers (that is, private companies) were ever prosecuted for any assault related offences under the criminal law. This raised questions about whether the Home Office is deliberately outsourcing the abuse of migrants to security companies, thus shifting responsibility from itself to those doing the state’s bidding.

Misery as Business?

Since the time of their inception, private security companies have been driven by the quest for higher profits. These companies by definition are heavily labour intensive, so any savings to be made are likely to impact upon wages and conditions of staff – the only way surplus value can be extracted is through greater, more intense exploitation of labour. It is of least surprise that staffing levels, health and safety, training and consequently care provided to those who are confined, have remained a cause for concern over many years and been raised in recent independent reviews. Further, migrants have arguably become cash cows for these companies – therefore, increase in the number of individuals and/or holding individuals for longer periods, is likely to result in higher financial gains. The mantra is simple: more detainees equals more profit. Despite growing evidence of poor mental health in detention, there appears to be no rush to change the policy of indefinite detention. It is not just the management of migration, but management of misery and suffering which has now become one of the most profitable activities.

The “security market” is highly oligopolistic, with 4-5 contractors systematically bidding for lucrative public services contracts. Billions of tax payers money is handed over to these companies, despite national and global reports of abuses and harms inflicted in private facilities on migrants who are deemed vulnerable. Questions are again raised around performance, financial sustainability and superiority of service.

The state might not offer preferable alternatives to their business counterparts, but there is one key difference with state run facilities: public accountability for the individual or institutional infliction of harm or systematic violence, at least in theory if not practice.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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