Allegations of ‘gross maladministration’ and human rights abuses exist alongside ‘staggering’ profit margins for private companies brought in to manage the UK’s immigration and VISA systems. In this post, Bethany Morris, a content writer for the UK’s Immigration Advice Service, lays bare the UK Government’s policy to prioritise profit over people and the multiple problems arising from outsourcing parts of the UK’s immigration service to private companies. Bethany raises further concerns regarding the Government’s expanding reliance on outsourcing, arguing that the asylum interview is a particularly sensitive process, one that requires training, compassion and understanding, and one that is now due to be replaced with a service provided by companies under scrutiny for corruption, abuses and maladministration.   

If you find this article of interest, please visit our recommended reading list at the end of this post. 


by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the UK’s Immigration Advice Service

In recent years, the UK Government has fought against mounting criticism as it moves to outsource multiple factions of the UK’s immigration service. Not only has outsourcing raised concerns that the Government is prioritising profit over people, but many of the companies responsible for the takeovers have found themselves embroiled in scandals of human rights abuses. Yet as MPs, campaigners and immigration lawyers have voiced their concerns over a system unfit for purpose, the Government continues to fast track the outsourcing process, moving towards privatising the asylum interview process with the firms at the front of the queue being the same big names facing widespread backlash for their mismanagement of contracts and scandals of abuse.

Currently, the UK has eight long-term immigration removal centres with only one being run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The remaining seven have been outsourced to four private, for-profit contractors: Serco, Mitie, GEO group and G4S. Under these contractors, immigration detention has become a booming business and alongside increasing visa and citizenship fees, the Home Office generated an average profit of £500 million in 2018 alone. A 2014 report by Corporate Watch estimated that detainee labour could be saving detention corporations around $3 million per year by getting detainees to maintain their own prisons through cleaning and cooking, with many paid as little as £1 per hour.

In 2019, MPs and lawyers called for an investigation into the outsourced visa system as it came to light that thousands of vulnerable immigrants were being forced to pay astronomical fees and travel long distances just to apply for UK status. Calls for an investigation were backed by the Law Society and Immigration Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) with Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society, expressing concern that “inconsistencies in the process could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants”.

Last year, the Home Office was encouraged to end its contract with contractor VFS Global, a private firm based in Dubai, which has been accused of “gross maladministration” since taking up its contract in 2014. The company’s contract with the UK is worth a staggering £321 million plus variable costs to handle visa applications. During the first five years of the contract, the Home Office made £1.6 billion from visa fees, which is nine times more than what was made during the previous five-year period. Applicants applying through VFS claimed they had missed flights and were wrongly denied visas as a result of delays and administrative errors caused by VFS. Lawyers also accused VFS of targeting vulnerable migrants with a stream of ‘optional’ services on their website such as ‘super priority’ visa services, all at additional costs, with many applicants claiming these services were never delivered.

Despite the apparent failures of outsourcing and the corruption behind using immigration centres for profit, the Government will now move towards outsourcing the asylum interview process raising a number of concerns. Currently, the asylum interview process is carried out by civil servants, often to an unsatisfactory level. Their lack of training has led to a stream of allegations from applicants claiming they have been treated wrongly during the process. Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, emphasised that the Home Office’s ‘culture of disbelief’ has targeted those seeking to work in the UK, or move with a spouse, unfairly. The UK’s border regime often conceptualises those seeking asylum as invaders; a problem to be passed elsewhere. Outsourcing this process would only see the government able to evade further responsibility for asylum. Contracting firms such as Serco, G4S and Sopra Steria will now take over the interview process in an alleged attempt to alleviate a backlog of asylum cases. The pandemic has significantly impacted the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum. While communities have found new ways to demonstrate solidarity and support, the government is attempting to use this crisis to its advantage by shirking responsibility in the form of increased outsourcing.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has condemned the move as “deeply concerning”, especially when considering that private companies have failed to perform their jobs humanely and have been accused of a number of human rights abuses including sexual assault. A 2017 BBC panorama investigation unearthed an alarming rate of mistreatment inside the Brook House detention centre ranging from violence and self-harm to abuse. The Yarl’s Wood detention centre has faced similar criticism after a Channel 4 reporter discovered that members of staff were verbally, physically and sexually abusing detainees. The treatment of detainees at the hands of these private corporations, and the failure of the government to hold them to account, cannot help but raise concerns over moves to outsource interview processes.

The asylum interview process is a particularly sensitive aspect of the immigration system, requiring compassion and understanding from interviewers. With numerous reports indicating a failure to protect detainees is rife within private companies, the Government should be urged against outsourcing these processes to the same people who have failed to protect vulnerable detainees time and time again. If the move goes ahead, detainees who are already facing a system which prioritises profit over people will come up against even more hurdles and potential abuse whilst attempting to enter the UK. Third sector organisations and unions such as PCS are continuing to urge the government to U-turn on this decision, demanding an in-house solution be found. 


If you enjoyed reading this post you can access the recommended reading below:

Daly, S. Refugee (2020) Hosts at the Imperial War Museum – Discomfort, Resistance, Hope

Daly, S. & Greatrick, A. (2020) ‘Without Exception’ – One Year On: Refugee Hosts International Conference

Daly, S. & Greatrick, A. (2019)  ‘Without Exception’ – Equal space for knowledge production

Davies, D. (2017) Hard Infrastructures, Diseased Bodies

Davies, D. (2017) “Urban Warfare, Resilience and Resistance”

Greatrick, A. (2016) “Externalising the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Consequence of Historical Denial?”

Featured image: ‘Refugees Welcome Protest’ – Sourced from Creative Commons, February 2021

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