Migrant detention in the European Union: a thriving business Outsourcing and privatisation of migrant detention

June 2016: Conclusion: Under the guise of “mass” migration134, the EU and its Member States are continuously strengthening their systems to deprive migrant populations of their liberty. Emblematic of European policy for the exclusion of foreign nationals, migrant detention facilities offer fertile ground for human rights violations. The acts of resistance and rebellion by detainees are a sign of the injustice and despair caused to those who find themselves trapped inside.

For over thirty years, the EU and Member States have pursued a policy of detaining migrants, despite its limited effectiveness in reaching targets. In terms of deportation – which is supposed to be the main purpose of migrant detention – the figures show that many people held in administrative detention are never removed from the country.  As to the objective of “controlling” migration movements, the experience of the past 20 years has shown that mechanisms put in place to control migration merely help to create more obstacles for migrants, often putting their lives at risk. Detention has failed to discourage migrants from attempting to cross borders.

A number of studies have demonstrated the ideological impact sought by the governments who put in place migration control, regardless of their effectiveness: “Through spectacular measures and thundering speeches, governments aim to convince an electorate ill at ease with the turmoil in today’s world that everything possible is being done to keep them safe”. In a world where the political and economic soverignty of nation states is being eroded, the roll-out of migrant detention centres closely resembling prisons, even though they are not actually prisons, not only criminalises a section of the population seen to be undesireable, but also showcases the action of the State to give the impression that it has the situation under control

Apart from this policy of smoke and mirrors, this study also shows that the explanation also lies in the development of a migrant detention “industry” in the EU. The examples given here, from construction to administration, through to activities associated with logistics and care for the people detained there, migrant detention camps are a source of profit for numerous private players. Growing privatisation of migrant detention, in its many forms across European countries, on the treatment of detained migrants is not without impact on the treatment of detained migrants.

Calls for tender issued by governments focused on the lowest price often result in less funds being allocated for the management of migrant detention centres, resulting in lower standards of “reception” and care for detainees. In the United Kingdom, 42 milllion pounds in savings must be found under the new contract between the Home Office and Serco for the management of the Yarl’s Wood centre. According to the report published by the National Audit Office in July 2016, these savings will mainly come from a 20% reduction in Serco staff, to be replaced with self-service kiosks which migrants can use to order meals, for example. Relentless cost-cutting will only further dehumanise migrant camps and worsen living conditions for detainees.

Furthermore, privatised management of migrant detention pushes these already obscure institutions further into the shadows. With access for journalists and civil society to migrant detention centres already strictly regulated, limited and even prevented in the majority of Member States140, outsourcing the management of the camps and related services to private players only further hinders access to information on the latter. The account given by Louis Joiet, former UN Rapporteur on arbitrary detention, of his attempt to obtain a copy of the contract between Australia and a private company clearly illustrates the risk that information will be withheld in the context of privatised management of migrant camps: “The immediate response I received was that it was a business secret – rather than a State secret. For my contact, the State was just the same an ordinary commercial customer, and the UN an institution that he feared would disclose the trade secrets used to manufacture his ‘merchandise’ to the competition”. In another case in the UK, Corporate Watch faced a year-long battle to gain access to monthly self-evaluation reports by the companies managing migrant detention facilities