Travel agents, airlines, and arms, IT and surveillance firms, are among dozens of companies involved in the UK’s increasingly privatised immigration and border industry, prompting critics to voice concerns that “corporate actors” are profiting at the expense of human rights.
Research by The Ferret has identified 213 companies involved in deportations, surveillance, border construction and detention in Europe and the US – including at least 70 firms linked to UK Government contracts.
Critics have condemned the companies for profiting from the UK Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy on immigrants, arguing that it is “systemically unfair and unsafe”. The Home Office said in reply it would continue to deport “foreign criminals” and that private contractors are not responsible for making immigration decisions.
We found that ten airlines have allegedly been involved in deportations including Easyjet, British Airways and Qatar Airways. Other firms involved in the border security industry include Carlson Wagonlit Travel, holiday company TUI, and credit reference firm, Experian.
Earlier this month it emerged that last year the Home Office spent almost £9m on deportation charter flights. At least 828 people were removed by air, more than double the 410 removed on similar charters in 2019. The department spent £8.2m on 47 charters to 24 countries in 2020, with 18 of those countries in Europe.
Some of the flights to European destinations had people with criminal convictions on board, along with “third country” removals – mainly asylum seekers who arrived across the Channel in small boats.
According to Corporate Watch, which has researched the involvement of airlines, deportations cannot take place without “extensive collaboration” from businesses. It says the majority of deportations are on scheduled flights, not chartered, with deportees sitting at the back handcuffed to “private security escorts”, amongst business or holiday travellers.
Carlson Wagonlit – a global business travel services company based in the US – has been the Home Office’s deportation travel agent since 2004. Its current seven year contract, worth £5.7 million, will last until October 2024. “The tickets are booked by business travel multinational Carlson Wagonlit,” said Corporate Watch.
Budget airline Easyjet has been involved in deportations organised by the Home Office, said Corporate Watch, which added that British Airways has also flown deportees to destinations worldwide. Corporate Watch added: “We have numerous reports of Easyjet flying deportees to European destinations. Easyjet appears to be a favoured airline for deportations to Eastern European countries, and also for “third country” returns to countries including Italy and Germany.
“While most UK scheduled deportations are carried out from Heathrow and Gatwick, we have also seen accounts of Easyjet deportations from Luton. Cabin crew representatives in Unite the Union identify British Airways as the main airline they say is involved in deportation flights.” BA did not reply to our request for a comment.
TUI – a German multinational travel and tourism company headquartered in Hanover – was the subject of protests recently by the Stop Tui campaign due to its alleged role in deportation flights. TUI declined to comment.
Other private firms involved in the border sector include Mitie Ltd, which in May extended its 13-year facilities management contract with the Scottish Government. It has been used by the Home Office to deport people to destinations including Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Ghana along with European countries. The London-based firm provides a range of services including property management and it operates in Scotland at Marine Scotland buildings and the First Minister’s residence.
Tech firms operating in the sector include Israeli surveillance company Cellebrite. It received £133,000 from the UK Border Force and Immigration Enforcement.
According to Privacy International: “Cellebrite explicitly markets its software used to extract a device’s data to authorities interrogating asylum seekers’ applications”. An analysis of Cellebrite’s software conducted by Privacy International found that it could retrieve data which the user may believe has been deleted.
Another tech company called Deloitte Digital – a UK firm based in London – has worked on the £250m Immigration Platform Technologies (IPT) programme which was launched in 2014 to manage immigration, visa, and asylum applications and casework.
Financial firm Experian has also been contracted by the Home Office . In response to a parliamentary question in 2018, the UK Government confirmed it contracted Experian – one of the UK’s leading credit reference agencies – to conduct financial checks for immigration purposes.
Critics of the UK Government’s treatment of migrants include People & Planet, a network of student campaign groups across the UK. The group’s J Clarke said: “What this research clearly outlines is that the cruel and dehumanising hostile environment policies enforced by the Home Office are increasingly facilitated by a network of corporate actors seeking to profit from the brutality inflicted upon those that move and seek to move across borders.
Clarke added: “It is vital that this expanding space of corporate involvement in border policing meets fierce, vocal and organised resistance from those that recognise the dangers of attaching profit motive to border enforcement. We must make it clear that ourselves and our institutions will be unwilling to engage with any company, as customers or as investors, that is complicit in facilitating the deeply racist hostile environment.”
Alison Thewliss MP, of the SNP, said: “These figures are eye-watering in any case, but particularly so when we consider how the money in question is being spent. For example, at Napier Barracks the Home Office – via the companies to which it outsources – has for months been forcing asylum seekers to stay in cramped and unsanitary conditions, even in the middle of a Covid outbreak.
Regarding deportation flights, Thewliss claimed that often there were only a handful of people on board. “Worse still, some – it seems – never get off the ground at all. All of this in the name of maintaining as hostile an environment as possible for people seeking sanctuary in the UK,” she added.
Thewliss continued and said from her constituency casework, and also chairing the APPG (All Party-Parliamentary Group) on Immigration Detention, she knew that charter flights are a “particularly disagreeable element” of the government’s immigration policy.
“I and others have heard shocking stories of vulnerable individuals being forced onto planes with next to no notice and being denied legal representation,” she said. “That companies should profit from such behaviour is utterly wrong, and the UKG would do well to demonstrate even a modicum of compassion in how it treats people, many of whom are at-risk”.
Bella Sankey, of Detention Action, said the UK’s deportation system is “systemically unfair and unsafe”. She added: “Deportation law specifically sanctions child cruelty in family separation cases and mass charter flight expulsions prevent access to justice. Airlines that want to maintain their family-friendly reputations and uphold corporate social responsibility values should halt their involvement in deportations until fundamental reforms are made.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apology for seeking to remove foreign criminals and those with no right to be in the UK and work with the airline industry and other private firms to tackle illegal immigration and manage removals. Private contractors are not responsible for making immigration decisions.
“The government’s new plan for Immigration will welcome people through safe and legal routes whilst preventing abuse of the system, cracking down on illegal entry and the criminality associated with it.”
The UK Government has been criticised in recent years for what critics view as a hardline stance on immigration. There was controversy again last week after it emerged that boats carrying migrants across the English Channel could be turned back from the UK, if personally approved by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Critics of the move included the UN which said in a statement: “The foreseen deployment of large naval vessels to deter such crossings and block small, flimsy dinghies may result in harmful and fatal incidents. Although increasing numbers of people have been crossing the Channel by boat this summer, the numbers remain low and manageable. People forced by wars and persecution to flee their homes and people on the move frequently embark on risky journeys in many parts of the world. Saving lives should be the first priority – both on land and at sea.”
The Ferret reported in 2019 that arms firms in Scotland given taxpayers’ money were profiting from border security contracts in Europe designed to keep out asylum seekers who were entitled to seek refugee status.
The report was co-published by the Transnational Institute (TNI), the Dutch campaign against the arms trade, Stop Wapenhandel, and the peace research group, Delàs Center. It named three arms firms – Thales, Airbus and Leonardo – as well as a number of construction, shipping, technology and security firms winning border militarisation contracts.
The report said that at least £777 million has been spent by EU countries on land, walls and fences since the end of the Cold War. Since 1990, EU and Schengen Area states have built around 621 miles of land walls – the equivalent of six Berlin Walls – in order to stop the arrival of forcibly displaced people into Europe. All of the firms named in this report were asked to comment. The UK Government was also offered the chance to comment.
All the above companies were offered the chance to comment, as was the UK Government.
This article was co-published with the Sunday National.
Photo Credit: iStock/Chalabala