Outsourcing the UK’s Immigration Services: Prioritising Profit over People

Outsourcing the UK’s Immigration Services: Prioritising Profit over People

Last month, the UK government once again found itself at the receiving end of mounting criticism as it became apparent that the Home Office intends to outsource even more of the UK’s immigration services. The process of interviewing asylum seekers is next in line to be outsourced to private firms, with the likes of Serco, G4S, Capita, Mitie and Sopra Steria allegedly competing for the contract. It would allow them to take over this crucial aspect of the asylum process, with the Home Office citing an extensive ‘backlog of cases’ as its justification for granting such powers to private firms.  

This comes despite the Home Office having been embroiled in countless scandals in recent years as a direct consequence of critical outsourcing failures. The very firms now in line to take on this contract are those that have been the subject of widespread public backlash.  

Serco and G4S: abuse and mistreatment of detainees 

Just one of the UK’s eight long-term immigration removal centres - or detention centres - is run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The remaining seven are contracted out to four private, for-profit firms: Serco, G4S, Mitie and GEO Group. According to Corporate Watch, profit rates of around 20% are standard, with the Home Office paying out hundreds of millions of pounds to these firms. Assistant director of BiD (Bail for Immigration Detainees) described how immigration detention in the UK has become big business, arguing ‘It is unfortunately in the interests of companies like Serco that receive lucrative contracts from the state to drive down costs to maximise profit. As it is, conditions in immigration detention are inhumane and it is our clients that pay the cost.’  

The conditions referred to are what have sparked countless protests and campaigns to end the privatisation of the UK’s immigration services. Scandals across these outsourced detention centres have almost come to be expected. In 2014, serious allegations of sexual misconduct towards female detainees by staff at the Serco-run Yarl’s Wood detention centre saw the company subject to intense scrutiny. In 2018, Serco again sparked outrage when it was revealed that, in another of its private roles as provider of asylum housing in Scotland, the firm had threatened refused asylum seekers with changing the locks for tenants who had not yet moved out.  

Regrettably, such concerning failures of outsourcing do not end with Serco. In 2017, harrowing undercover footage filmed at Brook House detention centre run by G4S - another private firm which holds million pound contracts with the Home Office - revealed guards choking, mocking and abusing detainees.  

Outsourcing visa services: the prioritisation of profit 

Even beyond the outsourcing of detention facilities and asylum housing, almost every aspect of the UK’s immigration services has grown increasingly privatised, leaving the fate of migrants in the hands of for-profit firms. This includes visa services which serve as another example of the murky ethics surrounding outsourcing. In 2014, Dubai-based private firm VFS Global secured a major contract with the Home Office to administer approximately 70% of the UK’s visa applications.  

Just last year, reports suggested that the firm heavily exploited this service through curating a system which perhaps unsurprisingly prioritised profit over people, finding any way to accrue more money from desperate visa applicants. Through VFS Global’s marketing of ‘premium’ services such as ‘super priority’ visas, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) described how those seeking to work or settle in the UK are being pushed into ‘paying premium rates for a fast-track service that does not reliably deliver.’  

Sopra Steria - a private firm which won a £91 million contract with UKVI for the provision of biometrics - is yet another that has been exposed for placing unnecessary pressure on migrants, making them jump through hoops to submit their biometric data. What used to be a relatively straightforward process - with those applying for visas able to register their biometric information in most local post offices across the country - has now become a minefield. With just six of 51 offices offering free appointments, the outsourcing of biometrics has seen the visa application process hindered by significant delays and a dire lack of accessibility.  

Why the asylum interviewing process must not be outsourced 

With the endless scandals and sometimes life-threatening failures that have arisen as a result of outsourcing the UK’s immigration services, you would be forgiven for assuming that this process would be heavily restricted and re-evaluated. Yet the Home Office’s recent decision to outsource the asylum interviewing process is just another in a long string of measures which effectively seek to free them of responsibility.  

As it currently stands, interviews of those seeking asylum are conducted by civil servants. This has not been without its own issues, with a lack of training and insensitive lines of questioning being cited in numerous reports on the UK’s asylum process. Outsourcing this process, however, is not the answer. This will only allow the government to feign ignorance and innocence if private firms mistreat or mismanage this process; with outsourcing comes a sense of detachment and lack of accountability. This seems to be a current trend within the government’s post-Brexit immigration strategy, with Priti Patel recently in the firing line for proposing unthinkable and deeply unethical approaches to avoid responsibility for asylum seekers crossing the Channel.  

The asylum process in particular must be treated with the sensitivity, compassion and humanity it both deserves and requires. It is bad enough that those seeking asylum are often made to deal with private firms when it comes to accessing temporary asylum accommodation or facing detention in privately-run removal centres. The government’s relentless attempts to evade responsibility for some of the most vulnerable must be seen for what it is: callous, cold and corrupt. 


Holly Barrow is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an immigration law firm offering invaluable assistance with citizenship, settlement, asylum and visas  

Featured image via BBC