The Border Business

The grim condition of Home Office's asylum accommodation is notorious, but less well-known is the fact that its provision is outsourced to private companies – who profit from those fleeing disaster and war.

On 3 February this year, footage emerged of a person being forcibly dragged by police into Napier Barracks in Kent. The site, which was converted into ‘temporary, contingency accommodation’ for people seeking asylum during the pandemic, has been the focus of widespread media attention, along with a string of condemnatory reports from The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, Freedom From Torture, and this week, The British Red Cross.

Calls for the closure of ex-military sites like Napier (and ‘contingency accommodation’ generally) have highlighted human rights concerns and the lack of adequate Covid-19 precautions, along with a raft of other issues including: inadequate or non-existent mental health support, lack of clean or adequate clothing and footwear, inaccessible health and schooling services, poor quality or inappropriate food, safety problems in the face of targeted far-right violence, insufficient access to legal advice, and exclusion from internet access.

Less remarked upon are the private outsourcing firms running and profiting from such sites, and how the opaque category of ‘contingency accommodation’ has helped expand a grey area between military, police, and immigration control, epitomised by the vision of someone being forcibly detained in a site ostensibly operating as privatised asylum accommodation. Here, asylum accommodation as ‘deterrent’ becomes folded into the Dad’s Army meets Enemy of the State rhetoric we see in Priti Patel’s ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ sending hi-spec military drones and naval frigates to intercept inflatable dinghies.

There are currently three companies contracted to provide asylum accommodation in in the UK: Clearsprings, Mears, and Serco, each of which may employ outsourced firms of their own at different times. Accommodation provision has been gradually removed from local authorities and councils since the Asylum Support regulations were set up in 1999, as part of a wider shift towards what various commentators have called an ‘asylum industry’ or ‘Illegality, Inc.’: a vast and proliferating network of corporations and NGOs that profit from multiple parts of the border regime.

This overlaps with lucrative expansions of the Military and Prison Industrial Complexes. As the authors of a recent collection, Asylum for Sale, put it, ‘the same corporations building the warplanes that cause human displacement profit from the deportations of ‘failed’ asylum claimants.’ In the UK asylum accommodation system, this has resulted in a carousel of contractors taking over the management of housing and support for the average 50,000 people in asylum accommodation across the country at any one time, with each contract or ‘transition’ exposing people to months of anxiety, confusion, and often destitution.

This took acute form through the implementation of the latest set of ‘Asylum Accommodation and Support Contracts’ (AASC) in 2019, with threats of mass evictions, issues transferring properties between companies, problems with the privatised Sodexo debit cards used for support payments, and a new phone line by Migrant Help (who are officially an independent charity, but essentially operate as an outsourced wing of the Home Office) that was impossible to access for weeks. Outsourcing becomes a punitive form of governance in itself here, through a constant shifting of responsibility, with people passed around the various parts of a messy bureaucracy when problems inevitably arise, and the Home Office shifting blame onto its contractors at times of ‘crisis’.

As part of the AASC contracts, the company Clearsprings Ready Homes became responsible for two regions—the South of England and Wales—and thus took on the management of ex-military sites at Penally Training Camp (since shut down after successful campaigning) and Napier Barracks, when the Home Office sought to open these through the pandemic. As the Corporate Watch website outlines, Clearsprings is an Essex-based firm that has been involved in outsourced government housing contracts and caravan park management, but increasingly relies on asylum accommodation contracts for the bulk of its turnover. The company’s director, Graham King, looks to have personally made around £4.3 million over the last five years from the business, with company earnings set to be over £1 billion through the ten-year AASC contract – this despite repeated and ongoing concerns about the standard of housing provided by the company, and the ‘unsafe, unsanitary, and isolated’ conditions at sites like Napier Barracks.

Provision of accommodation at Napier is supposed to fall under the same guidelines and safeguarding measures as any other housing provided through the AASC contract, with the Home Office paying companies like Clearsprings for what it frames as just another form of the ‘initial accommodation’ used to house people at the start of their asylum claims. Yet leaked internal Home Office memos have shown that the ex-military sites were chosen partly for their brutal ‘deterrent’ aesthetic, and to placate anti-migrant press and voters. In practical terms, both the hotels and ex-military sites operate far more like immigration detention than housing, but generate revenue for companies contracted to provide accommodation and ‘support’, shielding the government from criticism as it simultaneously acts ‘tough’ for key voter bases.

Such profiteering and racism has not escaped migrant support campaigners around the country, who have increasingly targeted Clearsprings, Serco, and Mears since the new contracts came into force. Mears, who manage the three regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the North East, have become a particular focus in the last few months, as deployment of supposedly ‘temporary, contingency’ budget hotel accommodation hits its grim first year anniversary. Groups including No Evictions Network Glasgow, Sheffield Against Asylum Evictions, South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), and the North East Migration and Asylum Justice Forum have been highlighting how Mears, who present themselves as a ‘socially responsible’ alternative to firms like G4S and Serco, are anything but.

A week of action across the regions last month involved banner drops, digital campaigning, a vigil for people who have died in Mears’ housing and a satirical ‘Asylum Landlords’ website, highlighting the people who are profiting from this industry. Here, we learn about a number of key figures on the Mears board, including CEO David Miles, who makes around ‘£443,000 a year, over 20 times the average wage for Mears workers’; Dame Julia Unwin, whose background in anti-poverty charities like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation doesn’t seem to have helped the hundreds of people who found themselves stuck without any cash support in Mears’ properties over the pandemic; and Managing Director John Taylor, who, like many at the company, basically just switched over lanyards after being chief executive for previous asylum accommodation provider Orchard & Shipman.

The ‘Asylum Landlords’ campaign also links with other groups who are profiteering across the ‘asylum industry’, including the new ‘Abolish Detention – Hassockfield’ campaign, which is mobilising against a proposed immigration detention facility for women in the North East, with a focus on the constructing firm working on the site—Galliford Try—and the outsourcing firm who will run it, MITIE.

Making connections between different parts of the border regime is vital as the government begins to outline its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, or ‘Sovereign Borders Bill’, which aims to separate out people seeking asylum depending how they arrived in the country. While details about the new plans are still unclear (over 200 groups condemned an ongoing consultation on the bill as a ‘sham’ this week), the government has left the option of ‘offshore’ processing open, and will no doubt draw on the blurs it has created between ‘reception accommodation’, ‘detention’, and ‘contingency accommodation’ to avoid meeting the standards required within its own asylum accommodation contracts – not to mention the 1951 Refugee Convention.

One thing that we can predict, however, is that any new ‘overhaul’ of the asylum system means a slew of new contracts and potential profits for the kind of firms overviewed above. No doubt this will also involve the kind of brazen corruption and cronyism we’ve seen from this government across the board, overseen by a Home Secretary whose own career is littered with broken ministerial codes, ‘strategic advice’ for multinationals and questions about expenses. But as a new guide to ‘Border Profiteers’ in Germany reminds us, these companies all have names and brands, and collectively, we can take action against them.