Profit and power: the privatisation of asylum control.
By Jon Burnett, Information and Communications Officer at Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS).
In 2007, tucked away behind the headlines, a number of news stories quietly filtered through discussing the latest developments in the privatisation of asylum control and administration. Compared to the sensationalist rhetoric of asylum seekers as scroungers, cheats, liars, and criminals such developments rarely provoke much attention. Indeed, reading the Sydney Morning Herald in March discussing proposals by two businessmen to start-up ‘Asylum Airlines’; an airline exclusively running deportation flights, you could have been forgiven for believing the proposals were an early April Fools Day prank. The planned flights would have a human rights representative on board, but ‘no immediate news of plans for inflight entertainment or a frequent-flyer scheme’ the paper sardonically reported (Sydney Morning Herald, 2007).
The reality, however, is much more sombre. According to the Independent nine months later the key protagonist behind Asylum Airlines – Heinz Berger – has already set the company up, and has been closely involved with British airport security. An aviation consultant; Berger claimed that only bureaucracy was hindering his airline from beginning to negotiate the contracts for deportation transportations. He claimed to have had interest from a host of European countries, including Britain, and could save governments millions of pounds. One way in which these savings would be made, presumably, would be based in cutting the number of private security officers that are currently required to accompany those who are deported. Instead, the specially modified asylum airline planes will have seats with built in straps and restraining equipment for ‘disruptive’ passengers. Whilst those who persist in resisting their forced removal will be taken to padded rooms built into the aircraft (Verkaik, 2007).
The control and administration of the fate of asylum seekers has quite literally become big business. An entirely false and misleading discourse between ‘bogus’ and ‘genuine’ asylum seekers has underpinned a widespread shift in policy formation. And rather than seeking to offer safety and opportunity to those who are forced to migrate across the globe; opportunities are instead offered to those who wish to profit from such movement. In the first months of 2005 for example Daon (UK), a subsidiary of the secretive biometrics firm Daon, recorded pre-tax profits of €34, 114. Relatively speaking, such profits are not that remarkable. Yet a closer look behind the expansion activities of the company reveals that Daon, working with consulting firm Accenture and mobile phone company Motorola, is part of a consortium with an ‘€18 million contract to develop an electronic fingerprint system’ for immigration services within Europe. The first stage of this venture involves updating pre-existing fingerprint systems for asylum seekers. Moreover, in 2007 Daon was also believed to be working with Accenture to develop an EU-wide fingerprint matching database in a contract worth €157 million (Daly, 2007).
It is not wholly implausible to imagine a scenario where those seeking asylum could have almost their entire claim – a claim which is fundamentally a matter of life or death – processed in a way that ensures financial gain for companies ready to capitalise on those fleeing from death, torture, and misery. To offer a hypothetical scenario; albeit one entirely grounded in current reality, let’s imagine an asylum seeker arriving in the UK looking for sanctuary. She is housed by one of the nine companies who secured contracts worth roughly £135 million a year to provide NASS (National Asylum Support Service) accommodation in 2006 whilst her claim is processed (Home Office, 2006). Faster decision making procedures consolidated through a new asylum model (NAM) however means that her claim is unsuccessful as she does not have enough time to amass evidence and work with lawyers to present their case. In turn, massive reductions in legal and restrictions in appeal rights means that there is little opportunity for redress against this decision (Burnett, 2008a). Instead, she is forced to turn to private lawyers who can, and often do, charge extortionate fees. Yet as the claim has been rejected the individual is now destitute – homeless, hungry, and increasingly marginalised – and, like all asylum seekers, is not allowed to work. Consequently she becomes an undocumented worker in what are often dangerous and exploitative economies. After raising the money to pay for a private solicitor new representations are submitted to the state. But before these representations are processed she is picked up in one the increasing number of ‘dawn raids’ occurring across the UK – in 2006 running at an average of 22 raids a day (Ibid, 2008b). She is subsequently taken to a privately run detention centre – a likely event as most of the UK’s detention centres are contracted to the private sector – and held in, for example, Harmondsworth Detention Centre: built and run by ‘UK Detention Services’ (a subsidiary of Sodexho) in a contract worth £180 million over 8 years (Corporate Watch, 2004).
Now let’s imagine she tries to escape from detention but is caught in the process. Her solicitor ensures her release but, because of the unsuccessful escape attempt, she is electronically tagged by one of the many companies who have secured extremely lucrative electronic monitoring contracts in the UK. In the meantime she is offered Section 4 (hard case) support whilst her representations are considered. Forced to reside in ‘no choice’ accommodation of which almost all is contracted to the private sector; she is given £35 per week in food vouchers that can only be used in the mainstream supermarkets such as, for example, Tesco, that have secured the contracts for their use. Section 4 support has proven to be an extremely profitable market and, for example, housing provider the ‘Angel Group’ recorded pre-tax profits of £4.8 million between 2000-2001. Its owner paid herself a salary of £458,000 (Pallister and Bowcott, 2005).
This scenario is not particularly unlikely, and emphasises just some of the contexts in which the harrowing ordeals that many asylum seekers are forced to endure in the UK have been turned into extremely profitable business opportunities. Indeed, if our hypothetical woman above has her fresh representations rejected then, if he gets his way, she could well become one of Heinz Berger’s first passengers on Asylum Airlines.
Of course, the above sounds wildly conspiratorial. Yet the privatisation of asylum control is already well advanced and developed. Campaigners must recognise this if effective challenges to the brutality that is embedded in the asylum process are to be posed. For as it stands, the wars, inequalities, famines, and dangers abroad that asylum seekers symbolise by their very presence here provide lucrative opportunities for those who wish to make money from misery.
 The opportunity for businesses to branch out into the electronic monitoring of asylum seekers is increasingly likely. In 2006 the then Immigration Minister Tony Mcnulty announced plans to electronically tag almost all asylum seekers on arrival (Travis, 2006).
- Burnett, J. (2008a) ‘No access to justice: legal aid and destitute asylum seekers’, PAFRAS Briefing Paper No. 3, Leeds: PAFRAS.
- Burnett, J. (2008b) ‘Dawn raids’, PAFRAS Briefing Paper No. 4, Leeds: PAFRAS.
- Corporate Watch (2004) ‘Sodexho: A Corporate Profile’, Corporate Watch UK.
- Daly, G. (2007) ‘Desmond firm reports profits in UK’, The Sunday Post Business Online, 14 January.
- Home Office (2006) ‘New Five Year Accommodation Contracts Signed’, Home Office Press Release, 24 March.
- Pallister, D. and Bowcott, O. (2005) ‘Inquiry into firm’s asylum contracts’, Guardian Unlimited, 3 August.
- Sydney Morning Herald (2007) ‘New airline for failed asylum seekers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March.
- Travis, A. (2006) ‘Electronic tagging for asylum seekers’, Guardian Unlimited, 14 March.
- Verkaik, R. (2007) ‘Austrian company offers to remove UK’s “disruptive” migrants in adapted aircraft’, The Independent, 27 December.