The privatisation of immigration detention in the UK symbolises a policy shift from restricting movement due to nationalist concerns to extracting financial value from migrants. Today, seven of the nine Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in the UK are outsourced to private companies. Mitie, G4S, Serco and GEO receive Government contracts worth £243 million a year. The growing political influence of the immigration ‘security’ lobby has been accompanied by allegations of severe abuse of vulnerable detainees, cost-cutting measures and a nebulous lack of accountability.
Within the framework of the Private Finance Initiative, private companies running immigration detention centres in the UK claim that they are better equipped to deliver specialised services efficiently than the state. There has, however, been no concrete proof that privatisation is better value for money. In contrast, the privatisation of immigration detention means big business. From 2010 to 2014, outsourced contracts between the National Offender Management Service and G4S and Sercor accounted for more than 70% of NOMS’ 2.5 billion budget. Mitie, after taking over Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs near Heathrow Airport in 2014, experienced an increase in annual profits from £333,000 to £2 million as it secured a Home Office (HO) contract worth £180 million over an 8-year period. Although some contracts might not be as profitable, they still provide a steady, state-backed, low-risk income. Private contractors receive on average £92 per detainee daily (£34,000 per detainee annually).
Clearly, the growing hostility of the British immigration system is influenced by the financial interests of private sector companies. Private contractors, moreover, employ 1.2 million people in austerity Britain, which only increases the political capital of the migration ‘security’ lobby. The entanglement of private companies and the public sector have made the big security firms ‘too big to fail’ as outsourcing reinforces the Government’s dependence on private corporations. This trend is increasingly worrying because the corporate endeavour to increase profit margins is accompanied by allegations of extreme violence at detention sites, cost-cutting measures, hardening penal laws and a lack of accountability.
Due to private sector interests, the bottom line of a company now is what counts in immigration detention. The strict management of detention facilities is ensured by recruiting senior staff who worked in prisons or the military before joining the ranks of private contractors like G4S, the world’s biggest security company whose portfolio includes security services in Guantánamo. To reduce running costs in labour-intensive IRCs, the number of junior staff is decreased. Serious staffing issues have been reported at Colnbrook IRC since Mitie took over a contract whose value was reduced by 30% while demanding the same service. Unsurprisingly, Mitie has been accused of aggressive cost-cutting practices.
The HO, nevertheless, continues to shed responsibility and dismiss reports of abuse. In 2008, a dossier of 300 alleged assaults at IRCs was collected by an NGO coalition but did not provoke any response from the HO. When Jimmy Mubenga was killed during his forced removal from the UK in 2010, the G4S guards were acquitted of manslaughter despite their racist messaging. Mitie’s CEO justified a large fire in Campsfield IRC in 2013 by claiming the HO had not instructed the contractor to install water sprinklers. The Global Detention Project details numerous cases of sexual assault and harassment at Yarl’s Wood IRC, which received limited attention when two Serco staff members were suspended in 2015. These reports have critics wondering whether the Government deliberately benefits from blurred lines of accountability to shed responsibility.
Despite high-profile failures of private companies, a serious investigation of privatised immigration detention seems impossible. Private companies delivering public services are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and their Government contracts are protected from public scrutiny by ‘commercial confidentiality’. CorporateWatch questioned the integrity of the ‘self-audit’ system between private firms and the HO in 2014. Since 2013, G4S and Serco have been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging the Government on electronic monitoring contracts. After paying £109m and announcing a ‘corporate renewal plan’, G4S was however awarded further contracts. The Government also reached a £70.5m settlement with Serco, which has additionally been investigated by the Financial Reporting Council since 2016. Recently, Bail for Immigration Detainees initiated a judicial review to officially brand G4S a “High Risk” supplier to hold the global outsourcing company accountable.
In conclusion, treating immigration detention as a profitable business is clearly dangerous for detainees and undermines accountability. Despite severe failures of private companies, as well as numerous judicial reviews, the lack of accessible information and accountability complicate a genuine investigation of outsourced immigration detention. To improve conditions in the short term, G4S, Serco, mitie and GEO must submit to systematic, public oversight but in the long run the privatisation of immigration detention in the UK must end to enable the fundamental reform of a failing system.
Josefine Brons studies Politics and International Relations at SOAS University of London.