Holly Barrow, political correspondent for IASUK, gives her opinion on the UK Government's increasing reliance on detention companies, and the implications this has for how Britain is perceived, and how these facilities treat migrants.

The outsourcing of various aspects of the UK's immigration system is regrettably no new phenomenon. Yet, in recent years, this practice seems to have spiralled, with the Home Office increasingly finding new ways to evade responsibility for both migrants and asylum seekers. In recruiting private outsourcing companies to deal with key elements of the UK's immigration system, the Government has created an exploitative industry at the expense of those who are often vulnerable and desperately require safety. 

Million-pound contracts have been awarded to companies such as Serco, G4S, Sopra Steria, Mitie and VFS Global, allowing them to operate everything from for-profit detention facilities to UK visa application services. The repercussions of outsourcing such services and prioritising profit before people have proved devastating. 

Serco and G4S are no strangers to scandal. Over the past decade, both have been embroiled in legal challenges as a result of abuse, harassment and discrimination across several of their for-profit detention facilities. Brook House immigration removal centre – formerly operated by G4S – was the subject of a harrowing undercover Panorama investigation in 2017, which found that abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable detainees within the centre was rife. Similarly, Serco – another outsourcing giant – faced a sexual assault inquiry in 2016 following deeply concerning allegations of abuse within its Yarl's Wood detention facility, with six of its female detainees coming forward. 

Despite this, just last year, the Government awarded Serco a £200 million contract to run immigration removal centres, revealing just how little it cares about the wellbeing of detainees. 

Aside from the rapid privatisation of detention facilities, the Government has similarly faced mounting scrutiny for allowing private firms such as VFS Global – a Dubai-based company – to deal with visa applications on their behalf. This service has become riddled with exploitative loopholes, encouraging visa applicants to fork out thousands in 'prestigious fast-track' application services. The Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA) recently revealed that those seeking to work or settle in the UK are 'being pressed into paying premium rates for a fast-track service that does not reliably deliver.' Home Office revenues from overseas visa applications have soared to £1.6bn after having outsourced these services to VFS. 

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After being granted a £91million contract by the Home Office to take over the processing of biometric data for visa applicants, outsourcing firm Sopra Steria has faced accusations of overwhelming applicants in a 'maze of misinformation'. To make matters worse, the service has become unnecessarily difficult to access and navigate. Prior to being outsourced, applicants were able to easily register their biometric data in most local post offices across the UK. Now, under Sopra Steria's authority, their sites are few and far between, with only 6 of 51 offices offering free appointments. This has led to a significant shortage of appointment availability, subsequently causing delays for those who wish to complete their applications. 

With all this in mind, you would be forgiven for assuming that both a string of sexual misconduct allegations across some of the UK's privately-run detention facilities and critical administration issues within outsourced visa services would force the Government to re-evaluate its approach. However, this has not been the case. On the contrary, it seems intent on ramping up the outsourcing of even more of the UK's immigration system, including the asylum interviewing process which is currently undertaken by civil servants. Citing a 'backlog of asylum cases' as its justification, the Home Office has revealed plans to go forward with outsourcing the interview process to commercial contractors. 

This poses a number of concerns for people seeking asylum in the UK. The asylum process is a particularly sensitive one, with many of those seeking asylum often extremely vulnerable. The interview process involves collecting evidence for the individual's asylum claim and plays a significant role in the decision to grant or refuse asylum. 

We have witnessed how outsourcing other aspects of the asylum system – such as detention – has led to abuse, neglect and the use of detainee labour to maintain profit. And yet, despite these firms already having a murky track record and failing to carry out their duties effectively, the likes of Serco, Sopra Steria and Mitie are now competing for the contract to take over the asylum interviewing process. 

Refugee charities, MPs and migrant rights activists have branded the move 'dangerous', emphasising that even caseworkers who have received extensive training in this process still miss signs of trauma and can struggle to elicit disclosures from survivors. For commercial contractors to now be trusted with assessing such vulnerable cases opens asylum seekers up to further injustices. 

Profiting from the asylum system is abhorrent and must be challenged at every step. As previous outsourcing attempts have made clear, the initiative of profit inevitably influences how asylum seekers are treated and how their safety is – or is not – prioritised. While the Home Office must work to reduce the backlog of asylum cases that has grown as a result of the Coronavirus, outsourcing is not the answer. 

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