In May 2010, the new coalition government committed to ending child detention for immigration purposes. The ‘commitment’ had to wait another few months to materialise (only last week reports revealed that a 11-year-old girl had been detained at Tinsley House detention centre, near Gatwick, over Christmas). Meanwhile, the UK Border Agency has been experimenting with a new deportation process for families, spun as “a new, compassionate approach to family removals.” Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg went as far as claiming that this marked “an enormous culture shift within our immigration system.” But while many serious concerns regarding the rights and welfare of migrant families remain, the new system appears to have created a new market for detention and deportation profiteers.
New old pilots
The new deportation system for families involves three stages, euphemistically named Assisted Return, Required Return and Ensured Return. The idea is that measures taken to persuade or force a family to leave the country will get increasingly tougher the further through these stages the case progresses (for more details on the new system, see this ILPA info sheet). Along with these, three new schemes have been piloted in London and the North West: Family Conferences, Limited Notice (of removal) and Open Accommodation.
Until 22nd November 2010, only the first two stages of the new process were being tested. In the six months since 1st June, however, out of 96 cases only two families took up the Assisted Return option and only one family was deported under Required Return. The Home Office appeared to be rather disappointed with the results, of course (see this interim assessment). And thus, two secure hostels, run by private accommodation providers, were identified in Liverpool and London to “ensure” the return of families who have exhausted the Assisted and Required Return routes but have “failed to comply” with the deportation orders. Here, families will be kept for a minimum of 72 hours before being forcibly deported, but can be kept for up to a month where removal is not possible for one reason or another. In line with the immigration newspeak, these new deportation hostels are being called ‘open accommodation’.
A UKBA document, dated November 2010 and titled “Open Accommodation: Accommodating Families Outside of Detention”, describes the pilot scheme as “a radically different approach” to the way the UKBA deals with migrant families due for deportation that is designed to “secure departure without the need for immigration detention.” Explaining the rationale behind the pilot, the document goes on to state that, “We know that there will be some families who, despite our best efforts, will not comply with offers to leave… We consider that moving such families out of their existing accommodation and away from community links and ties they have built up will signal to them that they have reached the end of the road and enable them to understand that their removal will happen.” In other words, uprooting families from their communities will make deportation easier as families would not have access to the support networks they would have if they stayed in the community. Similar practices are followed by other European countries that already operate similar systems.
This is not the first time that different types of temporary accommodation to house families prior to deportation have been used, with one such scheme still ongoing in Glasgow. A similar pilot was also tried for 10 months in 2007-2008 in Millbank, Kent. Evidence suggests that this pilot actually decreased the likelihood of families complying with the immigration authorities and many reported feeling “coerced and frightened” (see this independent evaluation). However, the use of the new deportation hostels differs from past attempts in that it is part of the last stage of a new deportation system to ‘ensure return.’ In other words, families are not taken to these hostels with the aim of ‘persuading’ them to leave the UK ‘voluntarily’. They are, rather, flagged for ‘open accommodation’ by a newly formed Family Returns Panel, on the recommendation of the UKBA ‘case owners’, due to their perceived ‘non-cooperation’ in the past. In most other cases, deportation will be carried out from the families’ existing accommodation (provided under sections 4 or 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999). But this might change soon if deportation hostels are rolled out. That, in essence, is the coalition government’s response to ending child detention.
One of the places identified for the ‘open accommodation’ pilot is an anonymous-looking hostel in Thornton Heath, near Croydon. Brigstock House (57 Brigstock Road, Thornton Heath, CR7 7JH) is an eight-room, double-fronted detached Edwardian house, which has undergone some alterations. Since January 1991, it has been used as a residential care home for adults with learning disabilities, run by BDC Supporting Services, an umbrella group incorporating four residential care homes in the area (see here). According to UKBA documents, it has recently also been used for initial asylum accommodation, where people are housed temporarily upon arrival before they are ‘dispersed’ to other parts of the country. Following the announcement of the pilot scheme, it was decided to ‘convert’ part of Brigstock House to accommodate a selected number of families to be deported under the Ensured Return option, who will apparently be kept in a separate wing of the hostel on a full-board basis, with access to the communal bathrooms.
Until June 2010, most asylum and bail hostels in the Greater London area were managed by private accommodation provider Clearsprings (Management) Ltd. The company is the third-largest asylum accommodation provider in the UK after the Angel Group and United Property Management, and is the main provider in the London area. In March 2006, it was awarded, along with seven other companies, a five-year contract worth £153,119,067. The Angel Group’s contract’s value was £275,441,736, and UPM’s £170,152,129. The division of the Clearsprings Group responsible for short-term accommodation has recently been renamed Ready Homes (see here).
In June 2007, a new a government-funded scheme called Bail Accommodation and Support Service (BASS) was introduced to provide accommodation and ‘support services’ to people released from prison on bail or home detention curfew (HDC) but do not have a suitable address. For three years, BASS services were provided by ClearSprings. On 18 June 2010, a new three-year contract was awarded to housing charity Stonham (see here). A division of Home Group Ltd, Stonham is one of the UK’s largest providers of housing and support services for vulnerable people (see here). The UKBA has indicated that the new deportation hostels will be initially run be third-sector organisations – a typical first stage in privatisation processes.
Brigstock House has a 24-hour ‘reception’ service, which will register families when they move in and out of the hostel and ask them to sign a daily register. The UKBA claims staff will not monitor the normal comings and goings of individual people but will know if a family does not return to the hostel and inform the immigration authorities immediately. The local immigration enforcement team to be responsible for Brigstock House is based at Becket House immigration reporting centre, near London Bridge.
How open is open?
The Home Office insists that “open accommodation is not detention.” Accommodation to be used in the pilot scheme is described in the afore-mentioned UKBA document as “a residential building where families will be free to come and go as they please.” This will apparently be similar to the initial accommodation used at the beginning of the asylum process before people are dispersed to privately provided accommodation in other parts of the country.
Detention under immigration powers is defined as holding a person on UKBA-designated premises, whether they are taken there by an immigration officer or after attending there voluntarily, for any length of time (Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009). In other words, their freedom of movement is restricted and they are deprived of their liberty. Deportation hostels are clearly not ‘open’ in that sense as families are required to stay there overnight and their movement is constantly monitored. If anything, it is more like a house arrest.
This is illustrated more clearly in another proposed ‘open accommodation’ facility in Crawley, Sussex (see below). A letter by the Home Office consultants sent to local residents to ‘reassure’ them about the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ states that the facility will have a 2.5-metre perimeter fence. The UKBA also claims that transfer to Open Accommodation will be “on a voluntary basis.” However, families will be threatened that, if they refused to move, they might lose their existing accommodation and become destitute. That is hardly voluntary.
The initial length of stay for families in ‘open accommodation’ will be 72 hours, or three days and three nights. Should their removal fail, however, their case will be referred back to the Family Returns Panel for further consideration, while the family remains in the hostel. The Panel will then consider whether any extension of stay is appropriate on a case-by-case basis. According to the pilot scheme proposals, the Panel may authorise an extended stay for up to 28 days. Where removal fails again (for example, if travel documents could not be obtained), the family will be transferred back to Section 95 or Section 4 accommodation in their previous region, but not at the same address where they were previously housed. It is not difficult to see how things could go wrong at each and every step of this process. After all, how many asylum seekers have been staying at the same ‘temporary’ accommodation, often in bad, uninhabitable conditions, for months and years?
As indicated above, another new scheme introduced recently, besides Open Accommodation, is known as Limited Notice. This means issuing Removal Directions, or deportation order letters, without specifying the precise date for which the removal is set (see here). Like with charter flight deportations, which are subject to “special arrangements”, the letters only state that the removal will take place within 21 days and no sooner than 72 hours. There have already been legal and other challenges to this practice, as it often creates practical barriers to migrants accessing legal representation to challenge their removal and, therefore, increase the risk that people who have well-founded fears of persecution in their countries of origin may be forcibly deported from the UK. The uncertainty that this situation creates is also proven to cause considerable distress to families (see here, for example). Other options that are being considered by the Home Office include increasing the use of electronic tagging, increasing reporting restrictions, detaining one parent, or any combination of these.
In the new family deportation system, when the local Immigration Team refers a ‘non-cooperating’ family to the Family Returns Panel, it will only notify the family and their legal representatives, seven days in advance of the move, that they will be moved to another accommodation in a different area, without making it clear that this will be to an ‘open accommodation’; “just in a different area and in different accommodation,” as the UKBA instructions state. Once there (at Brigstock House, say), they will be served with removal directions by an immigration officer from the local London region, with the ‘no sooner than 72 hours, no later than 21 days’ notice. Moreover, the immigration authorities will also inform the local authorities of the family’s move and that the family will “continue to be supported by UKBA, just in a different area,” in order to pre-empt any request by the family to the local authority for emergency accommodation on the basis that they will become homeless.
The UKBA documents outlining its ‘open accommodation’ plans claim that vulnerable families with specific medical needs are “not suitable for the open accommodation pilot.” However, the UK’s detention history shows that the agency simply disregards such concerns unless it is, occasionally, forced to revise its decisions by campaigners or courts. Indeed, hundreds of torture victims, people with HIV, pregnant women, children and people with serious medical problems have been swallowed by the brutal detention and deportation machine.
The plans also claim that ‘open accommodation’ is consistent with Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which requires the Home Office to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom,” and with the recommendations of the Child Detention Review that ended child detention. It is difficult to see how uprooting families from their communities and forcing them into poorly equipped, temporary hostels can be regarded as safeguarding their welfare.
For example, the UKBA does not intend to “provide an exhaustive list of medical issues” that may prevent families being moved into open accommodation. Instead, the Family Returns Panel will be assessing families “on a case-by-case basis.” Brigstock House is allegedly provided with an “on-site health facility” that is staffed by a nurse. A GP is said to visit two days a week. Yet, it is well known from previous experience (in family detention centres) that this structure of provision is not capable of dealing with serious issues, such as distress and other psychological problems created by the asylum system. In fact, whereas detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood were provided with some sort of schooling for children, deportation hostels will have no such facility. Instead, children will be offered “age-related work packs.” This is justified with the argument that “families will be in Open Accommodation for as little as 72 hours,” despite admissions that they may stay for up to a month in some cases. Moreover, families in the pilot scheme will not be provided with any cash support. They will, therefore, have no money for travel to visit legal representatives, for example.
The UKBA claims that all deportation hostel staff will be “fully CRB-checked, have had disability training and food safety training where appropriate, and have received training in conflict management.” However, judging from similar facilities run by private providers, such as initial asylum accommodation hostels, this sounds rather exaggerated. For example, many migrants who have been through such hostels confirm that ‘conflict management’ often means simply shutting people up or, where a distressed person or child may have caused ‘disruption’, calling the immigration authorities or police. Deportation hostel staff will also be instructed to immediately call the police when “third parties (for example, family associates or campaigning parties) interested in a particular family’s case” turn up at the hostel and “cause disruption.”
The Family Returns Panel will be made up of members of the UK Border Agency and professionals from other agencies, who “may include” representatives from social services, the Department for Education and, “in some cases,” a health professional. The aim is that the Panel will consider the welfare of the family to decide what is the “most appropriate way” for the UKBA to ensure that the family leaves the UK. This aim, or assumption, will inevitably lead to a culture of institutional abuse and negligence, as detention centres have long shown.
New business opportunities for detention profiteers
As the ‘open accommodation’ pilot was being devised, the UKBA insisted that “any new approach to managing families must be affordable within the UK Border Agency’s settlement in the Comprehensive Spending Review.” The other consideration was “improving the speed of asylum decisions and case conclusions.” Indeed, the document outlining the plans was “first shared with corporate partners” on 8th November 2010, before being released to the public.
The UKBA’s Corporate Partner Group, which provides “a forum for the agency’s chief executive and board to work more closely with our key partners on strategic issues and to share information regularly,” consists of representatives from a number of selected business and NGOs involved in the immigration and asylum system. These include the Board of Airline Representatives, the Confederation of British Industry, Refugee Council, the UNHCR, Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and so on (you can find a full list here). The group meets quarterly, enabling “open and constructive discussion” about how the UKBA should develop and deliver its policies. The agency also publishes a bi-monthly update for its corporate partners called UK Border Agency News (see here). These may be a good source of information but are also places where commercial intentions and plans are communicated to businesses looking out for new opportunities in the immigration market.
Another such channel is the Commercial Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services (COMPASS), which was launched in 2009 to “provide ongoing contract provision for asylum and refugee support services.” After two ‘successful’ supplier conferences in October 2010, the UKBA has held a series of one-to-one meetings with “interested potential commercial partners” to “discuss the feasibility of the different contract delivery models.” And this brings us to another recent ‘open accommodation’ plan.
‘Pease pottage hot, pease pottage cold’
It has recently transpired that the UKBA has applied for planning permission to convert another facility, a residential school for children with behavioural and learning difficulties in Pease Pottage, Crawley, Sussex, into a ‘pre-departure accommodation facility’ – another euphemism for deportation hostels. The Crawley Forest School is owned by Crossroads Childrens Education Services Ltd., a private company wholly owned by its director Sunita Arora, the wife of Surinder Arora, the owner and founder of Arora International Hotels. No open procurement tendering process for the facility, as required by EU and UK legislation, has taken place, which suggests that there may have been some dodgy, behind-closed-doors deal between the UKBA and the Arora Group, following the latter’s failure to gain a slice of the detention market last year (see below). The school itself, which has been told to vacate the property by 1st April 2011, was apparently unaware of the new plans until it was contacted by campaigners. The new facility, which will have the capacity to accommodate eight families, is intended to open in mid-May. The Home Office will lease the building from Crossroads, whilst the day-to-day running of the centre will be outsourced to a ‘third-sector’ provider.
In an attempt to avoid a repeat of previous embarrassing experiences, a ‘consultation letter’, dated 25th January 2011, has been sent to local residents on behalf of the Home Office by private consultation firm CgMs Consulting, trying to convince them of the new project (a copy of the letter can be found here). Citing the coalition government’s policy on ending child detention, the letter argues that “the need remains to provide a suitable facility to accommodate families whose removal from the UK is being enforced.” And this “pre-departure accommodation,” it claims, “provides that solution.” This is partly justified by the site’s proximity to Gatwick and Heathrow airports, implying that this would make deportations easier. The letter then reassures residents that the facility already has a 2.5m palisade fence, with electronic entrance gates, and that “there is no requirement to alter this boundary treatment.” It also claims that families will be accommodated for a maximum of 72 hours or, in exceptional cases, for up to one week, which is not exactly accurate. As to the timescale, the letter apologises for the short notice and claims that this was due to “the closure of previous facilities” (meaning family wings at immigration detention centres) and that it is important for the government’s new plans that the new facility is operational by 11 May 2011. The letter also claims that the Crawley Forest School currently has only 8 residential pupils, despite having the ability to house 35 residential and 35 day pupils, making the project “unviable.” The school management, however, disputes this claim and says the school was only ever equipped to accommodate 12 to 18 pupils.
CgMs has worked for the Home Office as a “consultant on property matters” since 1997 (see here). Its portfolio includes “providing advice on numerous existing and new Removal Centres nationwide.” These apparently include “20-30 proposed Immigration Accommodation Centres nationwide before the Accommodation Centre policy was changed by the Government.” The company has also been involved in “advice, applications and appeals for related Reception, Induction, Reporting and Hearing Centres.” The reason for this, in the words of the company, is that “because of the nature of the users, these have nearly always proved controversial, involving sensitive and comprehensive consultation with local residents, councillors and other stakeholders.”
In 2009, Arora Management Services, which owns a series of luxury hotels close to airports, applied to the Crawley Borough Council for permission to convert its four-star hotel Mercure, near Gatwick, into an immigration detention centre, driven by “a decline in business” (see this Corporate Watch article for details). The move sparked a concerted campaign against Arora by No Borders and other anti-detention activists, with protests and actions taking place at Arora hotels across the country. The Crawley Borough Council’s Development Control Committee eventually rejected the planning application.
Since news of the plan for the new deportation hostel in Pease Pottage transpired, No Borders has announced that it will immediately start a campaign against the new facility (see here). “If Arora thought they can get this through without anybody noticing it,” a spokesperson for the group said, “they have failed.”