In the decade since Mubenga’s death, the Government has embraced privatisation as a key tenet of its immigration agenda
October 12 marks 10 years since Jimmy Mubenga died on a British Airways flight scheduled to deport him to Angola, after being restrained in his seat by three G4S escorts. A 2013 inquest ruled Mubenga’s death “unlawful”, noting that unreasonable force was a significant factor leading to his cardiac arrest.
The escorts, however, were cleared of any wrongdoing. No one at G4S, or within government, has ever been held responsible. Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity Inquest, said at the time: “There needs to be a mechanism for state institutions and the private companies they employ to be held to account when people die.”
In the decade since Mubenga’s death, the chances of creating such a mechanism have only diminished. The Government has embraced privatisation as a key tenet of its immigration agenda, effectively allowing it to outsource responsibility when things go wrong. And when corporations compete to provide services at the lowest possible cost, things frequently go wrong.
A recent spate of government briefings, leaks and speeches on immigration suggest deeper levels of privatisation – and new depths of inhumanity – are on the horizon.
A pilot scheme, rumoured in late September, is said to test the effectiveness of outsourcing the delicate, complex legal procedure of asylum interviews. Based on what happened with the Atos ‘fit-to-work’ tests fiasco, experts are concerned contractors will value profit margins and numerical targets over claimants’ wellbeing and legal rights.
The government is also considering “processing” immigrants in “offshore facilities” – internment camps by another name. Based on the Australian experience, this eye-wateringly expensive, potentially illegal exercise would undoubtedly put lives at risk. According to YouGov, it would also appease Conservative voters.
Charities, lawyers and human rights organisations have rightly slammed the plans as morally bankrupt. But they are also politically useful. These anti-immigrant proposals each have privatisation built-in, allowing the government to duck accountability for inevitable deaths to come – while swelling the coffers of the private companies who were awarded the contracts.
Passing the buck
Since Mubenga’s death, a familiar pattern has emerged. A new aspect of immigration services is privatised; a scandal occurs; MPs raise concerns; the contract changes hands; the scandal-hit company re-emerges to win a new contract in a different service area. Victims and their families have little recourse to justice because private contractors are not bound by the same legal standards and obligations as public bodies. Recent history suggests that this cycle is only set to expand.
G4S lost its deportation services contract in 2011, but continued to run immigration detention centres – at a profit. When a 2017 Panorama investigation exposed abuses, poor managements and unhygienic facilities at its centres, the Government could not penalise G4S because: “Inappropriate use of force or verbal abuse of detainees are not counted as a performance failure under the contract”.
When G4S contracts were not renewed earlier this year, Serco stepped in with a winning bid to manage the centres until 2028. Serco’s credentials? A 13-year tenure of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre marked by repeated investigations into sexual misconduct, labour exploitation, abuse, unsafe facilities and hunger strikes protesting its inhumane conditions.
Serco has also been a major player in asylum seeker accommodation since 2012. A 2017 Home Affairs Select Committee report found Serco’s premises to be: “substandard, poorly maintained”, “unsafe” and “a disgrace”. Between 2013 and 2019, the company was fined £6.8 million for its failings. Then, in January last year, Serco was awarded a new ten-year asylum housing contract worth £4 billion.
Within a month, Serco was in court defending its practice of changing locks on houses, without a court order, to evict residents whose asylum claim had been denied. Despite public outcry, judges ruled in Serco’s favour specifically because it was not a public authority. The state has statutory obligation to house asylum seekers – a human rights regulation that does not apply to private contractors.
For the UK Government, that’s an almost perfect ending.
There is an alternative
In her speech to the Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel said “lefty-lawyers” and “do-gooders” were responsible for Britain’s broken immigration system. To Patel, respecting the rule of law and defending legally enshrined human rights are acts of rebellion. She would rather outsource immigration to corporations ruled by the bottom line, happy to follow dubious orders, and content to take the heat off friends in government.
Yet her own party’s policies undergird this broken system. Removing local authorities and experienced third sector service providers from asylum seeker housing spectacularly reduced service quality, value for money and data sharing. Private detention remains provably expensive, traumatising and arbitrary. The Windrush scandal however reminds us that state oversight of immigration processes is no guarantee of competency, compassion or respect for people’s rights. Public services provision however guarantees a level of transparency, accountability and recourse to justice that does not exist in the private sector. Only collaboration between government, informed civil society organisation and immigrant communities can fix our broken system – and ensure accountability for its harms.
This week, however, Boris Johnson declared: “the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” In a letter detailing its asylum interview outsourcing plans, the Home Office notes that “strategic suppliers” – including Serco and G4S – are primed for contract bids. In response to concerns raised about the plans, a Home Office spokesperson said, “any supplier providing support would have to meet our rigorous standards.”
Considering the legacy of Jimmy Mubenga, that promise alone is cause for alarm.
Siobhán McGuirk is a postdoctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry
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