Four multinationals manage 7 of the 9 detention centres in the United Kingdom, with the contracts they sign worth millions of pounds. Nevertheless, there are complaints, allegations and deaths amidst what is happening under their management. Which are they and how can this system be explained?
Marcos Ortiz F.
“The United Kingdom is the first European country to have outsourced the management of detention camps. In other European countries we see that privatization is growing but not yet on such a large scale as in the United Kingdom”, French political scientist of Migreurop, Lydie Arbogast states authoritatively. The information compiled in her study “Migrant detention in the European Union: a thriving business” is telling.
It is estimated that 6 out of 10 immigrants detained in the United Kingdom are under the protection of one of the four private management companies in this field of business, which is a statistic that can only be matched in the United States and Australia.
It appears that immigrant detention has turned into a business like any other. Beginning in 1970 (the date when Edward Heath’s Government privatised its first two centres), the aim of the system has been to lower costs no matter what, without taking into account the wellbeing and care of detainees.
Of the nine long-term immigrant detention centres in the United Kingdom, seven are privately managed by companies that also outsource certain responsibilities to other companies, such as health services.
Companies in control
Mitie leads the way with three centres (Colnbrook, Harmondsworth and Campsfield House), G4S has two (Brook House and Tinley House) while Serco manages Yarl’s Wood and GEO manages Dungavel.
Only two centres – Morton Hall and The Verne – are managed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS), which itself is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.
But what do the companies in control of the care of detained immigrants do? Their role is not one of mere coincidence, given that they are large multinationals and, in many cases, charged with overseeing terrorists at war or real criminals.
G4S, for example, is active in 125 countries, employs 585,000 people, delivers security services in Baghdad, provides services and equipment to Israeli prisons and has been involved in a series of scandals. The multinational, which is in control of two detention centres at Gatwick airport, received a record 773 complaints from detained immigrants in 2010, 48 of those regarding assaults, and the majority of which were registered in Brook House.
In the case of British company Serco, it is involved in the transport sector, prison control and even nuclear weapon management, as well as in other areas. Having managed the Colnbrook detention centre between 2004 and 2014, it’s existing contract in Yarl’s Wood began in 2014 in exchange for £70 million and is valid until 2021.
The company continuously prides itself in lowering costs within all the sectors it operates, while in 2012 an Australian media outlet obtained access to the company’s training manual, with instructions on how to hit and inflict pain on detained individuals.
Although Mitie started out by specialising in cleaning services, today it is in control of three detention centres in the United Kingdom, adult prisons and juvenile detention centres, and also focuses on pest control, to name a few of its lines of business.
With almost 1,200 detainees, it is currently the company responsible for the largest number of immigrants. It was in Colnbrook, under its jurisdiction, where a Moroccan citizen committed suicide in 2016, and months later where another 64 year old detainee was fatally wounded.
GEO Group Inc, for its part, manages prisons and migrant centres in the United States, Australia and South Africa. Its management contract for Dungavel, along with its 249 detained immigrants, ended in 2011 due to a track record that involved, for example, dirty and dangerous juvenile prisoners in Texas. Until 2014, GEO was in charge of Harmondsworth, the centre with the most deaths in the United Kingdom and which, according to an official report, significantly deteriorated under its management.
It is Wednesday night and 30 representatives, researchers and activists from a dozen different groups meet at a community centre in Bethnal Green, London to analyse the detention centre business.
Everyone brings along information that has been collected from the testimonials of detained immigrants, information requests made to public bodies and through attendance in court hearings.
Everyone agrees on the secrecy surrounding the system, the difficulty in accessing information and the lack of interest from national media outlets.
During a pause in the discussion, several minutes of the documentary “The asylum market” are shown, a film that seeks to deal with the topic, as its makers believe that the main British media outlets and parliamentary researchers are overlooking what is happening.
At the Crossroads Women Centre in Kentish Town, Cristel Amiss of Black Women’s Rape Action Project says, “it’s a pattern of deliberate policies and legislation designed to produce this. Designed to make detention and deportation a big business. Designed to make destitution a big business”. She continues to say “we have to look very deeply into who’s behind these companies. If a company like Serco has a chief a chief executive officer like Rupert Soames, who is the grandson of Winston Churchill, then we are looking at somebody who’s deeply a part of the establishment”.
The group produced a dossier that documents a decade of rape and sexual abuse in Yarl’s Wood. But the authorities ignore women’s testimonies, and ensure that official investigations only include interviews with the heads of contracted companies. “The didn’t ask the victims to speak to the Home Affairs’ committee. There is never really independent investigation”.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann, of Right to Remain adds, “Given the seemingly endless string of scandals involving G4S, from rape, brutality and misconduct in child custodial centres to systematic racism, incompetence and neglect, it’s obvious why people speculate that individuals connected to the government must somehow be profiting from it”.
The subsequent question asked by many is how is this then allowed to continue?
Consequences of privatisation
One of the few publications on the subject from the United Kingdom dates back to 2005. Its author, Christine Bacon, of the Oxford University Refugee Study Centre, already recognised that “the transfer of liability from the government to the private contractor has contributed to confusion as to which party is responsible when illtreatment or abuse occurs, often leaving nobody to answer for it”.
In her book “Xenophobie business”, the co-founder of Migreurop, Claire Rodier, clarifies that the primary aim of privatising migrant centres is to reduce State costs. The call for tenders, which many companies participate in, leads to fierce competition that tends to lower budgets.
With the aim of lowering costs, companies may offer work to detained immigrants, paying them £1 an hour (£1.25 in exceptional cases).
The paradox is clear as although they may not be able to work outside of the centres, they are able to when detained, receiving a sixth of minimum wage.
This reality is not unusual. A Corporate Watch investigation showed that in March 2014, companies paid a total of £45,438 to detained immigrants in exchange for kitchen work, cleaning and facility maintenance, which was confirmed at the time to The Prisma by its producer, Phil Miller.
The impact of reducing costs and the difficulty in finding those responsible for abuse falls on the workers from such companies and, lastly, on immigrants detained in their centres. Proof of this was shown in May 2014 when a former Serco employee at Yarl’s Wood related the atrocities inmates were subjected to.
In what has been described as an “epidemic of mistreatment”, the sanctions for what happens within the walls of the detention centres have so far equated to million-pound fines paid for by the British taxpayer.
In the meanwhile, the detention business continues as usual.
Photos:Pixabay – (Translated by Abaigh Wheatley – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)