Profit over people? The ‘big business’ of tough immigration laws.

By Renata Carvalho

As the new Nationality and Borders Bill sparks yet another wave of debates over the United Kingdom’s immigration tactics, it is important to ask: who will really benefit from it? 

Priti Patel’s “common-sense approach to controlling immigration” proposes to make it a criminal offence to enter the UK without a visa or an asylum seeker’s application. This means Border Forces will have increased powers to deter illegal entry; those who have reached British soil can face longer jail sentences of up to 4 years; and citizenship can be removed without prior notice from anyone considered a threat or having acquired their citizenship fraudulently. 

Concerns about this reform are widespread, with many believing that in an attempt “to fix a broken asylum system”, the bill is trailing dangerously close to infringing numerous international human rights laws. According to the UNHCR, “The Bill would undermine, not promote, the Government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution”. 

Outsourcing is not the solution

If the UK’s immigration goal is indeed about making the asylum screening processes fairer and more efficient, then the focus should be the private companies responsible for these processes. Outsourcing immigration services has become the UK’s “modus operandi”, and the biggest concern is that this puts in the hands of giant businesses the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. The very basis of any business model is maximising profit at the lowest possible cost, and for these companies, profit comes directly from their ability to detain or deport people.

Upon closer inspection we are able to find scandals, misconduct or poorly delivered services in just about every aspect of the system; from visa applications corruption, undercover documentaries revealing the atrocities going on in some of the UK’s immigration removal centres (IRCs), to accusations of xenophobia within asylum housing and settling schemes. 

But despite recurring failures and very little progress, the giant corporations behind the immigration system continue to secure long term multi-million-pound contracts with the Home Office. 

“Bleak and dispiriting” – Life inside Immigration Removal Centres

Take the case of facilities management and security company Mitie, for example. In 2017 Mitie Care and Custody, the immigration focused branch of Mitie, secured a 10-year contract worth around £525million to manage the Campsfield House, and the Heathrow immigration removal centres, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. A year later, a report describing substandard holding conditions, healthcare concerns, detainees feeling unsafe and even an error releasing a detainee, led to the permanent closing down of Campsfield House. 

Photo by Caroline Martins – Pexels

A 2015 report for the Harmondsworth IRC shows an increase in detainee vulnerability, with nearly half of men disclosing feeling depressed or suicidal, and many feeling unsafe or victimised. Facilities were described as generally “overcrowded and poorly ventilated”, accommodations as “dirty and run-down”, and the “seriously insanitary conditions” of toilets and showers were highlighted.  

Six years on and the 2021 report describes Harmondsworth as “bleak and dispiriting”. Detainees were found to exhibit some of the highest levels of vulnerability assessed by the Home Office, and a “substantial amount of self-harm” was registered. Facilities were “prison-like” and run-down, and the food, of “generally low quality”. 

The integration of wider immigration changes into the centre’s processes and daily operations proved particularly worrisome and problematic at times. A lack of “suitable release accommodation” throughout the country, for example, resulted in detainees being held for much longer than necessary, which had the worst impact by far on those assessed at the highest levels of risk and thus “declared unfit for detention”.

Despite consistently receiving concerning reports, Mitie Care and Custody has recently secured further contracts with the Home Office. Mitie has been granted a 2-year contract to manage the Derwentside women’s IRC, and an 8-year contract to manage Dungavel IRC.

Business as usual

Meanwhile, Mitie is establishing a strong and favourable position and dominating various other industry sectors. Its scope includes, but is not limited to, security contracts with Westfield London and Stratford City, facility management services for private and public hospitals as well as universities such as Sussex, Swansea and Greenwich. It has recently secured research partnerships on corporate criminology with both Northampton and Cambridge universities, and it has adapted to the pandemic by running numerous COVID testing centres throughout the country.

This positive image of Mitie also boasts of award-winning initiatives for corporate sustainability, establishing itself as the lead in supporting organisations achieve their decarbonisation goals. And as Mitie’s corporate influence grows each day, so does their ability to win and retain Home Office immigration contracts that continue to treat asylum seekers as profitable commodities. 

Tougher immigration laws place refugees and asylum seekers in an undetermined state of limbo. Their status as citizens worthy of rights and protection is lifted both in the country they had to leave behind and the countries they reach for help. Nationless with nowhere to go. Like criminals, they are excluded from all aspects of society. 

They are placed in the care of companies who profit from their state of exclusion in true neoliberal fashion: maximising profits by cutting costs. The rates of mental health problems highlighted in the reports of Mitie’s IRC’s should be alarming to most, but this is a reality that is gradually and scarily becoming normalised. 

Other solutions exist…but could they work?

A Dutch initiative has shown that involving the population – not as vigilantes – in the immigration process can be beneficial to all. Through Takecarebnb, host families are matched up with asylum seekers, on a temporary basis, as cases are evaluated and decisions on their future are properly made. 

Photo by Radek Homola – Unsplash

Refugees are better acclimatised to the new country, and better motivated to learn the language, make friends and contribute to their communities. In turn, hosts are humanised by their stories, and whole communities have started to shift their perspective on what migration really is. The initiative’s success has guaranteed government support indefinitely. 

Initiatives like Takecarebnb clearly show that other approaches not only exist but can offer numerous benefits to society as a whole. In theory, re-humanising the UK on the realities of forced migration could help us foster human-centred approaches that could offer solutions to the UK’s immigration problems while also supporting refugees on their resettlement journeys. Although outsourcing immigration processes to big corporations like Mitie clearly isn’t the solution to the UK’s immigration crisis, in practice, we seem to still be too far off the path towards more humanistic resolutions.   The idea of the United Kingdom as a prosperous economy susceptible to ‘predator-like’ migrants runs much deeper than modern sensationalist nationalist trends. The UK was built on colonial foundations of exploitation, violence and injustice, propagated through neoliberal discourses of meritocracy and free markets that have only benefited those already belonging to specific oligarchic groups. Acknowledging this past would force the UK to accept responsibility for many of the issues by which the immigration system claims to be affronted, requiring a level of systemic, ideological and economic transformation that the UK is simply too ‘dignified’ to ever fully consider.

Renata Carvalho is an artist and Life Coach, currently a 3rd year Anthropology with Spanish BA student at Sussex. Her special interests are social justice, education and sustainable futures.

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