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Asylum as business: How corporations make billions off of refugees' plight

April 16, 2024
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#asylum seekers, #refugees, #Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), #United Kingdom, #USA
located:United Kingdom, Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), USA, Australia
by:Eleftheria Kousta
As populist rhetoric globally advocates for reducing the "burden" of taxpayer money spent on managing asylum seekers, private corporations are reaping billions in profits from government contracts. Advocates are raising alarms about the rapidly deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers within this system.

Agnes Tanoh enjoyed a successful career in her home country, Ivory Coast, as the chief personal assistant to the first lady. But when civil war broke out following the 2010 elections, she and her colleagues faced persecution and were forced to seek asylum immediately.

Having supported her children's education at British universities and with fond memories from her visits to the UK, Tanoh chose to seek asylum in the country where her daughter lived. But Tanoh’s image of the UK as a beacon of freedom and human rights was shattered when she was unexpectedly detained at the police station where she went to report herself and request asylum.

With nothing on her but the clothes she wore and no further explanations, she was put in a van with tinted windows and after a long journey was admitted to the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre

During Tanoh’s detention, she discovered that the centre was privately run. In a conversation with FairPlanet, she revealed that private corporations managed every aspect of the system, including the guards, the van drivers transporting asylum seekers, catering, housing and even deportation flights.

Reflecting on her seven-year journey as an asylum seeker, which included over three months of detention at Yarl's Wood and three deportation attempts, Tanoh described the experience as painful and traumatic. "I did not know why I was suddenly locked up," she said. "I was just looking for safety."

Now serving as the Spokesperson Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women, she dedicates herself to supporting women asylum seekers by advocating for their rights and empowering them to rebuild their lives on their own terms.

In the UK, private companies have been awarded government contracts worth several millions to take over various aspects of the asylum management system, culminating in what advocates have dubbed the "asylum industrial complex."

Other countries, including the US and Australia, are also known for engaging in similar practices, which advocates like Tanoh are seeking to challenge

A global industrial model

The privatisation of the asylum system has reached its peak in the UK, where its consequences are starkly evident on a global scale. Tara Povey, policy and research manager at Refugee Action, a national charity aiding refugee resettlement in the UK, said that what began as a temporary fix for asylum seekers' housing has evolved into a protracted struggle, exacerbated by the involvement of private entities in housing services.

"Initially intended as short-term relief, contingency accommodation, predominantly in hotels, has morphed into prolonged stays for asylum seekers, tantamount to isolation and detention," Povey explained. She added that the system itself incentivies the involvement of private companies in the asylum process by providing them opportunities to "make millions out of asylum seekers."

In the UK, three major private companies, SERCO, Clearsprings and MEARS, have received a total of £4 billion from the government to provide accommodation for asylum seekers. G4S, Mitie, Corporate Travel Management and Sodexo have also emerged as significant beneficiaries of such contracts, collectively reporting billions in profit from asylum-related activities. 

Before 2012, asylum management in the UK was primarily overseen by local authorities and housing associations, affording better standards and accountability, albeit imperfectly. However, a shift towards full privatisation ensued, starting with COMPASS contracts and subsequent expansions in 2018 through AASC contracts, cementing private sector dominance.

Povey highlighted a clear trend towards specialisation in immigration and detention among contracted companies, emphasising their financial motives as these companies have identified asylum as an extremely profitable area. She noted the rise of new industry players profiting from dividends and expanding their reach from accommodation to include detention, deportation and surveillance, creating an asylum industrial complex.

The UK's privatisation of detention reflects a global trend, but according to Povey, its impact is particularly severe due to the lack of legal limits on detention durations and the fact that the UK is the only European country with a private detention system, housing the continent's largest detention complex.

Povey noted that while conditions in government-managed asylum facilities were not ideal, there was more public oversight, accountability and transparency compared to the current situation under private management.

In discussions with FairPlanet, it was revealed that these corporations maximise profits by cutting corners and often evade accountability for mismanagement due to limited public awareness, insufficient government oversight and the marginalised status of refugees, making it difficult for them to lodge complaints or for the public and authorities to push for changes.

This profiteering extends beyond borders, with security companies like G4S implicated in human rights abuses in Australian detention centres. Across the Atlantic in the United States, a parallel system mirrors the UK's, failing those who cross its borders.

Setarah Ghandehari, advocacy director at the Detention Watch Network - an organisation founded to oppose migrant detention - highlighted the role of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, commonly known as ICE, in these practices.

"Currently, 90 per cent of ICE detainees are held in facilities operated by private corporations, marking a historic peak as of 2024, with over 35,000 individuals detained - a substantial surge since Biden assumed office," Ghandehari told FairPlanet.

A 2023 investigation by the ACLU confirmed this trend, indicating that "As of July 2023, ICE detains on average 30,003 people each day, a significant increase from the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, when ICE held an average of 15,444 people in detention each day."

Echoing concerns raised in the UK, Ghandehari underscored the exponential growth of private involvement in the asylum process in the US.

"The utilisation of immigration detention has expanded significantly," she said. "In the US, this surge aligns with a broader trend of rising incarceration rates and lobbying efforts by private corporations." She attributes this expansion to the federal government's evasion of responsibility, resorting to punitive measures that fuel demand for corporate engagement, emboldening the corporate lobbying.

In the US, key players include the "Big 4": Geo Group, CoreCivic, Management & Training Corporation and LaSalle Corp. These companies, which often hold monopolistic positions, sometimes operate through subsidiaries.

Ghandehari also noted that nonprofits established by former employees of these corporations further embed private interests within the immigration detention system.

Local governments, she added, also contribute to this trend by contracting jail space to ICE, reinforcing the system's reach and power.

Horrid Conditions under private management 

Despite substantial spending on these facilities, they face widespread criticism concerning their standards and effectiveness.

In the UK, Povey said, conditions are dire, particularly for families. These conditions include curfews, isolation in remote areas, minimal financial support, lack of transportation and low-quality food that can lead to malnutrition.

Sanitation is compromised, as facilities are often mouldy. Furthermore, staff members reportedly conduct unwarranted room searches, confiscate belongings and foster an atmosphere of fear, while far-right groups attack asylum seekers and traffickers lurk around the facilities.
These testimonies are well-documented, and have prompted significant backlash against governments following revelations of mismanagement in asylum facilities.

Ghandehari echoed these concerns, describing ICE detention facilities as appalling due to inadequate hygiene, insufficient food, lack of medical care and minimal outdoor space. She also highlighted reported deaths and widespread abuse, including instances of sexual abuse, which exacerbate the already poor mental health of detainees.

Tanoh’s personal ordeal aligns with accounts describing instances of violence, abuse and disrespect by privately-contracted staff, particularly concerning the invasion of privacy in shower facilities and the occurrence of sexual abuse, notably in detention centers like Yarl’s Wood.

Tanoh witnessed guards using excessive force on female detainees, including chokeholds. The issue of male guards having unrestricted access to facilities housing vulnerable female detainees and their misconduct prompted the Home Office to issue guidelines for women in detention. In reality, however, these recommendations are not enforced or properly implemented. 

Calls for accountability proliferate

Accountability within the asylum system remains alarmingly scarce, with Povey noting that contracts to run asylum facilities lack public oversight.

"While there are stipulated standards, enforcement mechanisms are inadequate, with fines for non-compliance paling in comparison to profits," said Povey. She added that recent legislation further threatens accountability mechanisms by removing safeguards such as environmental and fire inspections. 

Povey emphasised that transparency in contract oversight is lacking, as seen in the limited competition during the procurement processes, even amid extensive criticism prior to acquiring contracts. For example, SERCO's management of Yarl's Wood, which gained notoriety for rampant abuse and substandard facilities, sparked protests and raised questions about why the government continues to award contracts to them despite their problematic history.

The US is not fairing better, as Ghandehari noted. Despite recommendations to shut down problematic facilities, ICE has failed to act, allowing them to remain operational.

Moreover, while detention standards are established, accountability mechanisms are ineffective, with inspections, often conducted by other private auditing companies, deemed inadequate in enforcing these standards. This lack of oversight allows facilities to operate below standards without facing repercussions. Ghandehari further underscored the impunity with which ICE operates, facilitated by a symbiotic relationship between the government and private corporations.

"Despite President Biden's promise to end private prisons, particularly in ICE detention facilities, the reality is a surge in ICE-run facilities, including the takeover of former private jails," Ghandehari said.

Tanoh expressed the voicelessness of detainees during their incarceration, lamenting their inability to raise concerns or report misconduct within the detention administration.

"We fear the consequences of speaking out and what we say being used against us. The overwhelming power held by private entities leaves detainees feeling powerless to challenge them," said Tanoh. She added that "this sense of powerlessness contributes to the dehumanisation experienced by asylum seekers, exacerbating mental health issues and perpetuating a cycle of fear and uncertainty about their fate - whether it be detention, abuse or deportation." 

Breaking the vicious cycle

Refugees and their advocates are urging the implementation of alternatives that would benefit both the refugees and their host communities.

Povey emphasised the need to advocate for national housing standards to be universally applied and for councils to have oversight.

"The importance of housing asylum seekers within communities rather than isolating them in detention-like settings cannot be ignored," she said, condemning the profit-driven, punitive approach to asylum management, calling it a "political choice that prioritises profit over the well-being of asylum seekers."

Instead, she argued, tax money should be invested in improving housing standards and expanding social housing through collaborations between the government and councils. 

Povey highlighted the successful management of the Ukraine refugee crisis as a model, suggesting that similar support should be extended to all asylum seekers, regardless of their origin.

"Through the 'Homes 4 Ukraine' scheme, 4.4 billion went to councils and other support systems who were allowed to come to the UK to seek asylum," said Povey. "In essence, this is a two-tier asylum system, as people from outside Europe were disproportionately affected by detention. There are lessons to be learnt from these schemes, and it seems like one system would be best placed to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity."

Ghandehari also emphasised the need for a reorientation away from viewing migration in punitive terms, arguing that deterrence policies have never been successful.

"We need an end to migration detention altogether by removing the financial incentives. It is critical that [...] we manage the issue globally and collaboratively."

Tanoh, who stressed the need for compassion and respect towards asylum seekers, argued that we should advocate for companies to cease using refugees as a means for profit. "This means that people are not detained, which adds further trauma, [but] are given safe and dignified housing within their communities, and that they are supported to rebuild their lives."

Tanoh warned that removing private interests from the asylum process will be challenging, as it benefits both companies and the government. However, she believes it is possible through the power of the people.

"If the government changes its hostile policies, the private companies would lose these contracts."

Image by Maria Teneva.

Article written by:
Eleftheria Kousta
United Kingdom Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) USA Australia
Embed from Getty Images
Reflecting on her seven-year journey as an asylum seeker, Tanoh described the experience as painful and traumatic. "I did not know why I was suddenly locked up," she said. "I was just looking for safety."
Embed from Getty Images
In the UK, private companies have been awarded government contracts worth several millions to take over various aspects of the asylum management system, culminating in what advocates have dubbed the "asylum industrial complex."
Embed from Getty Images
Tanoh warned that removing private interests from the asylum process will be challenging, as it benefits both companies and the government.