This is an excerpt from our new book The UK Border Regime, coming soon. See also: A brief history of resistance to immigration detention.
As you read this, around 2,000 people are locked up without trial or time limit in the Home Office’s immigration detention centres.
In theory, immigration detention is meant to be a short term measure while people are processed for deportation. In practice, only half of people detained are actually “removed”. The other half are held for weeks, months, or even years before being released again, often into the limbo of the reporting system (see The UK Border Regime: Chapter 5). Indeed, the UK is the only European country with indefinite detention. All others have a set time limit on how long migrants can be held: for example, the limit in France is 45 days.
The UK is also exceptional in the scale of privatisation of its detention system – although other European countries are catching up fast. Of the eight long-term detention centres, seven are run by four private companies: Mitie, G4S, Serco, and GEO Group.
Detention is a very profitable business. Although kept secret on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”, the available information suggests these companies expect to make 20% and more profit from detention contracts. Companies keep costs down, and profits up, by systematic under-staffing, and by using detainee labour paid just £1 an hour. People rounded up for “illegal working” are put to work to clean their own prisons and make money for the likes of G4S.
This briefing gives a quick run-through of some key issues and trends in the detention system, followed by a list with details of the detention centres.
I feel very isolated in here (Yarl’s Wood). It’s not like just a lonely feeling. It’s a different kind of isolation. I feel like I have already been removed to a place with different laws, removed from my friends and family, removed from society, so far removed from every comfort.
I find myself missing silly things like animals. I want to play with my dog. I have not seen a child in so long, do little people exist any more? I miss watching football with a cold Peroni. I wonder what happened in Game of Thrones? Silly things really.
Detained Voices, 24 February 2018
The detention centres
The Home Office currently has eight long-term migration prisons, called “Immigration Removal Centres” (IRCs). These are: Colnbrook and Harmondsworth near Heathrow airport; Brook House and Tinsley House (including the “family unit” where children are imprisoned) at Gatwick Airport; Campsfield House in Oxfordshire, Dungavel House in Lanarkshire, Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, and Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire.
One key issue for the future is: if the third runway goes ahead at Heathrow Airport, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook will have to be demolished – and, unless there is some drastic change in government policy, replaced.
There are another two stand-alone “residential short term holding facilities” (RSTHFs), where adults are held for up to one week. These are Larne House in Antrim and Pennine House at Manchester Airport. (There are also short term holding facilities within the Yarl’s Wood and Brook House complexes.)
Finally, there are also more than 30 “non-residential” holding centres where people are kept for short periods.
A few figures:
- At the end of June 2018, 2,226 people were being held in immigration detention. 1,905 people were in detention centres, plus another 321 people in “immigration detention in HM [Her Majesty’s] prisons”.
- There are in total around 3,000 available beds in long-term centres, plus more in short term holding facilities.
- 27,231 people were detained in 2017 altogether. The large majority (23,272) were men.
- According to the Home Office, detaining someone currently costs on average around £86 per day. That means the whole system costs roughly £170 million a year.
- 13,173 people were deported from detention in 2017. That is, less than half of people detained were deported. Most are bailed, or released without conditions. Bail usually involves finding people to act as “sureties”, and having to report regularly at Immigration Enforcement reporting centres.
- Detention numbers have fallen in the last two years, from a peak of 32,447 in 2015.
- Only 44 children were detained in 2017; 20 of these were 11 or younger. Only 11 of these children were actually deported. The other 33 were put through the ordeal of imprisonment without any departure at the end of it. Child detention numbers were down from 163 in 2015; but numbers may increase again now the new Tinsley House family unit is open.
- East Europeans are now top detention targets alongside South Asians. The top nationalities leaving detention in 2017 were Pakistan (2,565), Albania (2,288), India (2,252), Romania (1,879) and Bangladesh (1,385).
- Most people are inside for less than one month: 63.4% in 2017, with 80% out by two months. These proportions are very similar every year going back to 2010: the Home Office has not succeeded in speeding up detention-deportation “turnover” time. 225 people leaving detention in 2017 were imprisoned for over a year. One person had been in more than four years.
A little bit of history
The first detention centre, Harmondsworth, was opened near Heathrow Airport in 1970. It originally had space to lock up 44 people. The next year, the 1971 Immigration Act formalised Britain’s infamous system of indefinite detention: anyone without the right immigration status can be imprisoned indefinitely on the order of an Immigration Officer, without charge or trial. From the start, Harmondsworth was run by a private contractor: Securicor, which later became part of G4S.
By 1993, there were 250 detention places. But fifteen years later, there were nearly 4,000. The detention system was rapidly expanded under Blair’s Labour government. This began with two makeshift centres, Lindholme and Oakington, opened in former RAF bases in 2000 (both have since closed); then Dungavel, a former hunting lodge, the next year. In 2001, two bigger purpose built centres came on line: Yarl’s Wood, and a rebuilt Harmondsworth. (Although half of Yarl’s Wood was permanently destroyed in a revolt just three month later.) Dover was converted from a young offender’s institute to hold migrants in 2002, and the new Colnbrook opened in 2004.
In particular, Labour’s detention regime targeted asylum seekers: they were 83% of people detained in 2001, the first year for which we have records.i Since 2011, asylum seekers have been around half of detainees every year. In 2000, the official name of these prisons was changed to Immigration Removal Centres. This was meant to indicate the fact that, legally, they are only meant to hold people being processed for imminent deportation. Although, as the figures above show, this is far from true.
In recent years, several detention centres have closed and the overall number of places has gone down – it is currently just over 3,000. Two detention centres, Haslar and Dover, were shut in 2015. Another one, The Verne, in Dorset, closed in December 2017.
The Home Office also planned to close Dungavel in Scotland: the idea was to replace it with a “short term holding facility” near Glasgow airport, with detainees moved quickly down to the main English centres. However, this plan was scrapped after campaigners succeeded in blocking planning permission for the airport site, and Dungavel is still open.
The future: government strategy
Detention centre places have reduced in the last few years, and the proposed Dungavel closure would have meant further cuts. This is not because Theresa May’s conservative government suddenly developed a soft heart. Rather, it is a result of financial austerity: depending on size, detention centres cost between £5 and £10 million to run each year, or an average of over £20,000 per “bed” (see below). And Home Office budgets are squeezed (see The UK Border Regime: Chapter 4). The basis of current detention policy, then, is to try and slash costs.
One way would be to speed up the flow of people through detention to deportation flights. This has long been the Home Office’s stated objective – but there is no sign of success. The statistics on how long people stay in detention have been essentially unchanged since 2010.
Another way is increased privatisation. All the recently closed centres were publicly managed, leaving all but one now outsourced. Although it is questionable how much the government actually saves this way: as we see below, the private contractors are still making extremely healthy profit margins.
Finally, the basic thrust of recent strategy has been to concentrate people into the two main detention centre complexes at Gatwick and Heathrow, while closing down smaller regional centres.
However, it looks like any new government plans are on hold for the moment. There has been increased attention on detention after recent negative publicity around abuse by G4S guards in Brook House. And there are now a number of inquiries taking place into the detention system.
One of these was the second “Shaw Review” into immigration detention. Commissioned by the Home Office, this was led by Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. Back in 2004, Shaw published the government’s official review of the 2002 Yarl’s Wood uprising. More recently, he was commissioned to make an extensive review of “the welfare of vulnerable people in detention”, published in January 2016. His second follow-up report was published in July 2018. Shaw’s reports usually make some broad criticisms of detention conditions, and recommend small reforms such as ending the detention of people over 70 or people born in the UK. They do not call for any major changes to the detention system overall or its management.
Following the Panorama revelations, G4S and the Home Office also commissioned a so-called “independent investigation” into conditions in Brook House – which is being carried out entirely behind closed doors. However, in May 2018, the High Court ruled in favour of two former detainees calling for a formal public inquiry into the centre.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is also conducting its own inquiry into the detention system. This began by looking at Brook House but has since expanded its remit to cover the system as a whole, including the issue of detention time limits.
Detention is a form of violent abuse, even in the best possible conditions. But there are certainly more and less vicious ways to treat people locked up. Occasionally, small glimpses of the violence of detention reach the national media. The most recent scandals have focused on the widespread sexual abuse of women detainees in Yarl’s Wood; and on systematic humiliation and abuse by G4S guards in Brook House – revealed by a whistle blower who filmed numerous scenes undercover, working with the BBC’s Panorama programme.
2017 was the deadliest year yet in UK immigration detention, with six people dying. The Institute for Race Relations (IRR) keeps regular track of deaths in the system.
There have been numerous studies by NGOs and advocacy support groups into the harms done to detainees. In particular, we should mention the work by Medical Justice documenting the treatment of torture victims, and the physical and mental health impacts on all detained people. One good place to keep track of latest news and resources is the Detention Forum website. Another invaluable website project is Detained Voices, which records and spreads messages from people currently inside.
In 2010, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government promised to “end child detention”. In 2011, they announced they had done it. This was a lie. In fact, the Home Office had just opened a new dedicated detention centre for families with children, in a former hotel now named Cedars, near Crawley and Gatwick Airport.
Child detention had simply been rebranded, with Cedars described as “pre-departure accommodation”. Families were meant to be held for no more than three days, but this could be extended for up to a week with the Home Secretary’s consent. G4S was the main management contractor at Cedars, but “children’s services” were run by the charity Barnardo’s. The children’s charity was condemned by many for helping to legitimise this new form of child detention. No other charity would take the job, but Barnardo’s was in major financial trouble at the time.
In October 2016, Cedars was closed, and replaced with a new “family unit” built inside Tinsley House. The reasons for this were purely financial: it was not cost effective to run a separate family site, and its “suites” were often under-occupied. Barnardo’s lobbied for the bigger children’s prison to stay open, but was unsuccessful. G4S won the contract to run all aspects of the new family unit, including “welfare services”.
Although child detention continues, numbers reduced significantly under the Coalition and Conservative governments. In 2009, more than 1,100 children were locked up; in 2012, only 242. And numbers have fallen since: only 71 children entered detention in 2016. However, this latest fall may be to do with the closure of Cedars and the switch to the new unit at Tinsley House: numbers are likely to have increased since this unit became fully operational.
Outside detention, it is a criminal offence for most asylum seekers and other irregular migrants to work. Inside detention, the same people arrested for illegal working can be put to work.
A Corporate Watch report in 2014 showed that all four detention profiteers were saving large sums of money by paying detainees to do cleaning, cooking, and building maintenance inside their own prisons. The standard pay rate was £1 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage outside. The companies were estimated to be saving around £3 million a year this way. Detainees are supposedly not forced to work, but this may be the only way they can get money to buy basic supplies inside.
According to a January 2018 report by Phil Miller, in Dungavel detention centre 64 detainees were working up to 30 hours a week on jobs including cleaning, hairdressing and gardening. GEO Group had paid detainees £130,919 for 128,742 hours worked between November 2014 and April 2017. Paying the minimum wage would have cost them around £727,607 more.
With one exception, detention centres are run by private companies. Mitie is now the biggest contractor: it runs the Heathrow centres, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, and also Campsfield. G4S runs the Gatwick centres, Brook House, and Tinsley House. It also has a separate contract to run the family unit in Tinsley House. Serco runs Yarl’s Wood, and the US prison giant GEO Group runs Dungavel. Only Morton Hall is currently run by the state, contracted by the Home Office to Her Majesty’s Prison Service, HMPS.
The recently closed detention centres (Dover, Haslar, Verne) were run by the government. Presumably, it would be harder for the Home Office to shut a privatised centre unless its contract had come to an end.
Mitie also runs the two stand-alone Residential Short Term Holding Facilities (RSHTFs). It also runs the large majority of over 30 non-residential SHTFs, where people are usually (but not always) held for less than 24 hours. This is as part of the overall contract for “escorting and travel services”, which Mitie took over from Tascor (subsidiary of Capita) in May 2018.
As well as the main management contracts, private companies also have smaller contracts for healthcare services, cleaning, and more. Some of these are detailed in the detention centres list below.
NB: the detention centre contracts can be downloaded from the government’s Contractsfinder archive website – although in heavily redacted forms.
Contracts on hold
A number of big detention centre contracts should now be up for renewal. However, it looks like the government is putting off re-tendering the deals until the various inquiries take place and, it hopes, negative publicity has died down.
The G4S contract to run Tinsley House and Brook House was due to expire at the end of April 2018, and a tender process began in November 2016. However, immediately after the May 2018 local elections, it was quietly announced that the tender process had been suspended. Instead, G4S was given a temporary two year extension of the existing contract. The Home Office stated that the tender would be relaunched after the “independent review” of G4S’ running of Brook House. Effectively, then, the exposure of G4S’ abuses in Brook House has led to the company being rewarded two more years of fat profits.
Two other contracts are also coming to the end of their terms: Mitie’s contract to run Campsfield is meant to end in June 2019; GEO Group’s Dungavel contract in September 2019. Usually, re-tendering of such big contracts would start well over a year in advance. And yet, as we write this there have been no tender announcements for these deals.
Detention centre profits
Detention centres make big profits for the contractors. Although profits are kept secret on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”, the information that has emerged suggests that profit margins on detention contracts are usually at least 20%.
A July 2018 Corporate Watch report on detention centre profits investigated this issue in detail, looking at the accounts published by detention subsidiaries of GEO Group and G4S, and at internal G4S documents. The 2017 accounts of GEO Group’s UK subsidiary suggests it makes a profit of up to 30% on the Dungavel contract. Internal G4S presentations show the company boasting of over 20% profit rates at Brook House, and even over 40% in one year at Tinsley House. We have not seen similar information for the other contractors, but have no reason to believe their profits are any lower.
These extreme profit levels are certainly well above the expected profit margins set out in the Home Office contracts, which are in single figures. For example, the Brook House contract specifies a “profit contribution” of 6.8%. If companies manage to make above these levels through “cost savings”, the excess profits are supposed to be split with the Home Office. However, we have not seen any details of such profit sharing agreements, and do not know to what extent the contractors actually pass on savings – if at all.
Other government “outsourcing” contracts are not doing nearly so well. As we saw in Chapter 5, the COMPASS asylum housing contracts have hit G4S and Serco hard. Healthcare and construction are other areas where many have struggled. Mitie, for example, sold off all its home care business at a loss in 2017, while the collapse of outsourcing building contractor Carillion made shockwaves in the industry. But detention remains very much profitable, and all four companies currently in the market continue to seek out and compete for new tenders.
And as we have seen, funding for the Home Office’s immigration work is relatively low. So why do detention contracts remain so lucrative? We can think of a number of reasons. One is the savings from slave labour we discussed above. Another is that there is very little scrutiny of detention contracts, so contractors can cut costs further by under-staffing and stripping facilities to a minimum. As we reported in 2015, detention outsourcers are allowed to “self audit” their own performance, with minimal checking by the Home Office. Meanwhile the voices of those in detention themselves are rarely heard.
Another reason is that a small handful of specialist corporations have an effective oligopoly in the detention market. There is not the same competitive pressure on margins as in, say, a general “facilities management” contract where many businesses are able to apply.
Also, these companies know the business very well. Again, the very first purpose built immigration detention centre, Harmondsworth, was already run by Securicor (now part of G4S) on opening in 1970. The rash of new PFI-funded detention centres opened during the Blair government were handed straight into private management. Headline loss-making deals tend to be ones where outsourcing companies push into new areas they haven’t tried before – like asylum housing.
In general, while many other service contracts are being squeezed in today’s austerity conditions, locking people up remains good business, as does security more generally. This is ultimately why outsourcers who focus just on security and imprisonment like G4S and GEO Group are growing and turning a healthy profit. Prison and immigration control industries are fuelled by insecurity, inequality, and xenophobia – and recent trends suggest the rush to lock up society’s unwanted is not going away. Or as Serco’s latest Annual Report puts it:
… we can be very confident that the world will still need prisons, will still need to manage immigration … a prison custody officer can sleep soundly in the knowledge that his or her skills will be required for years to come.
Detention Centres list
A4 Bath Road/Colnbrook by-pass, UB7 0FX
Opened in August 2004. Colnbrook is a high security detention centre built to the same standards as a Category B prison. Capacity of 312 males and 27 females.vi
Currently run by Mitie. The contract, which covers both Heathrow centres, runs from September 2014-22.vii The total contract value at award was £240m, or £30 million per year – roughly £28,000 per bed.viii
Previous contractors: Serco 2004-14, the original contractor when the centre opened (then under the name “Premier Detention Services” or PDS.)
Healthcare: Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL).ix
A4 Bath Road/Colnbrook by-pass, UB7 0FX
The first detention centre, Harmondsworth was originally opened in 1970. It has been substantially rebuilt since then. With a current capacity of 726 male detainees, it is the largest UK detention centre.x
The older part of the centre (359 beds) is “hostel type accommodation” with lower security; a newer part (367) is run on similar lines to a Category B prison.
Currently run by Mitie. The contract, which covers both Heathrow centres, runs from September 2014-22.xi The total contract value at award was £240m, or £30 million per year – roughly £28,000 per bed.xii
Previous contractors: Securicor (now G4S), 1970-1988; Group 4 / GSL (now G4S), 1988-1999; Burns International, 1999-2001; Sodexo (at first under the name “UK Detention Services UKDS”, then rebranded “Kalyx” in 2006), 2001 – 2009.
Healthcare: Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL).
Brook House IRC
Perimeter Road South, Gatwick airport, RH6 0PQ
Opened 2009. Current capacity of 508 male detainees – expanded by 60 places in 2017 by putting extra beds in existing rooms.xiii The £1.7 million construction contract for expansion of both Gatwick centres was awarded to Wates Construction.xiv
Run by G4S since opening. The contractxv for the management of the Gatwick detention centres began in May 2009 and was due to end in 2018, but has now been extended until May 2020. The total contract value at award was £90.4 million; £10m per year, or roughly £18,000 per bed.xvi
Healthcare: G4S Medical.xvii Cleaning and catering are sub-contracted by G4S to Aramark.xviii
Tinsley House IRC
Perimeter Road South, Gatwick airport, RH6 0PQ.
Capacity of approximately 178 (after expansion by 40 places in 2017).xix This includes the “family unit” with 34 beds (8 suites), which is run under a separate contract by G4S.xx Tinsley House first opened in 1996.
Currently run by G4S. The contract for the management of the Gatwick detention centres began in May 2009 and was due to end in 2018, but has now been extended until May 2020. The contract’s total value at award was £43.6 million; £4.8 million per year, or roughly £27,000 per bed.xxi
Previous contractors: it was run by the US security firm Wackenhut on opening in 1996. Group 4 bought Wackenhut’s prisons division in 2002, incorporating it into its prisons company GSL. In 2004 Group 4 merged with Securicor, forming G4S. At the same time, to satisfy competition regulators it also sold off GSL to a venture capital partnership. G4S then bought back GSL in 2008. So the same management has been in charge since the start under different names.
Healthcare: G4S Medical.xxii Cleaning and catering are sub-contracted by G4S to Aramark.xxiii
Langford Lane, Kidlington, Oxon, OX5 1RE
Capacity of 282 male prisoners.xxiv Campsfield opened as an IRC in 1993, before that it was a young offenders’ prison.
Run by Mitie. The contract started in May 2011 and is due to run until June 2019, including a three year extension – although this could be extended, as with the Gatwick contracts.xxv Total value at award was £42 million; value per year £5.25 million, roughly £19,000 per bed.xxvi
Previous contractors: Group 4 / GSL (now G4S), 1993 – 2006; GEO Group, 2006-11.
Health services run by Care UK.xxvii
Strathaven, South Lanarkshire, ML10 6RF
Capacity of 249: 235 male, 14 female. Originally an aristocratic hunting lodge, later a prison, it opened as an IRC in 2001.
Run by GEO Group. The contractxxviii began in 2011 and is supposed to expire by September 2019xxix after a maximum of three annual extensions. However, as with the Gatwick contracts it might get extended further. Total contract value £45.2 million; £5.65 million per year, or roughly £23,000 per bed.xxx
Previous contractors: PDS (Serco), 2001 – 2006; G4S, 2006 – 2011.
Healthcare is provided by NHS Lanarkshire.
Swinderby, Lincolnshire, LN6 9PT
Capacity of 392 males. Opened as an IRC in 2011, it previously served as various other kinds of prison for men, women and youth since 1958.
Run by Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS).
“Facilities Management”, which includes responsibility for works, maintenance and stores, has been contracted out to Amey PLC since June 2015. Healthcare is by Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust. Education services are provided by Lincoln College. A charity called Children’s Links runs the visitor centre.xxxi Food is provided by Bidvest (formerly called 3663), which has a nationwide contract with HMIP for prison food.xxxii
Twinwoods Business Park, Thurleigh Road, Milton Ernest, Bedford MK44 1FD
Purpose built as an IRC, opened in 2001. Originally designed to hold 900 people, three months after opening half of it was burnt down in a major revolt by inmates. Current capacity 410.xxxiii It mainly houses women and adult families. There is also a “residential short term holding facility” where 38 males can be held for up to a week. xxxiv
Run by Serco (contract2014-2023).xxxv Total value £69.9 million; value per year £8.7 million – or roughly £25,000 per bed.xxxvi
Previous contracts: Group 4 / GSL (G4S), 2001-2008 – as part of a PFI joint venture with building contractor Amey; Serco 2007-2015.
Healthcare is run by G4S under a separate contract, with an annual fee of £1.2 million.xxxvii
Residential Short Term Holding Facilities (RSTHFs)
In these short-term detention centres, adults can be held for up to one week: seven days if removal directions issued, otherwise five days. Technically, there are three such facilities: one for male prisoners, which is part of the Yarl’s Wood IRC complex; and the two stand-alone facilities described below.
2 Hope Street, Larne, Antrim, BT40 1UR
Formerly a police station cellblock.
Capacity of 19, male and female.
Run by Mitie.
Room 1506-1510, Terminal 2, Manchester Airport, M90 4AG
Capacity of 32, male and female.
Run by Mitie.
iiiShaw: Yarl’s’ Wood report, p4
ivShaw: Yarl’s Wood report, Conclusions 377-380
vOn current official thinking around detention time limits it is worth noting the remarks by Stephen Shaw in his 2018 follow-up report (page viii). He notes: “Support for a time limit has coalesced around a period of 28 days, but I have yet to see a coherent account of how this figure has been arrived at. It is not so long ago that Parliament was presented with a proposal for a 60 day limit, and it is clear that there must be exceptions (it would surely be unacceptable for someone who disrupted a fight on the 27th day of their detention to be released the next day). Indeed, the proposals considered in 2016 during the passage of that year’s Immigration Bill specifically excluded those subject to deportation (in other words, the very foreign national offenders (FNOs) who make up the vast majority of those held in detention the longest).”
ixIMB: Heathrow IRCs report 2017
xIMB: Heathrow IRCs report 2017
xiiIMB: Heathrow IRCs report 2017
xviiIMB: Brook House report 2016
xxIMB: Tinsley House report 2016
xxiiIMB: Tinsley House report 2016
xxiiiIMB: Tinsley House report 2016
xxviHome Office FOI response to Michael Zhang, 7 January 2015, Annex B
xxviiIMB: Campsfield House report 2016
xxxviHome Office FOI response to Michael Zhang, 7 January 2015, Annex B
xxxviiIMB: Yarl’s Wood report 2016
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