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We recently analysed the issues faced by UK immigrants who have fallen victim to the Covid “cowboy” companies, charging fees for delivering inadequate – and sometimes incorrect – Covid tests.

However, it seems issues with the Covid companies might just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what has been coined the UK’s increasingly “privatised immigration industry”. Research by The Ferret, an award-winning investigative journalism platform for Scotland and beyond, has identified 213 companies, including airlines and travel firms, involved in deportations, surveillance, border construction and detention in Europe and the US – including at least 70 firms linked to UK Government contracts.

Such evidence has prompted critics to voice concerns that “corporate actors” are profiting at the expense of human rights when it comes to immigration.

Airlines

The research has 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.

Indeed, during 2020, the UK government spent almost £9 million 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.

According to Corporate Watch, Budget airline Easyjet has been involved in deportations organised by the Home Office, while British Airways has also flown deportees to destinations worldwide. Corporate Watch stated: “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.”

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.

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.

Tech Firms

Tech firms operating in the sector include Israeli surveillance company Cellebrite. According to The Ferret, 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.

There has also been further criticism of the role played by private technology forms in the UK’s immigration sector after separate research was analysed. Research carried out by Privacy International has raised concerns at the level of involvement of technology companies in the UK immigration border regime.

The report, entitled The UK’s Privatised Migration Surveillance Regime details the role that dozens of private tech firms play in the UK’s immigration and border regime.

The report highlights how tech firms are deploying technological tools to analyse the metadata and GPS location of immigrants through mobile phone extraction devices. Aerial drone surveillance is being used to patrol the Channel and portable biometric scanning devices are allowing immigration officials to identify people and check their immigration status in the country.

The report claims that these technologies are provided by private firms. Front-end tools are being supported by intricate back-end systems which are widely used by UK immigration enforcement.

Existing Case Information Database uses technology provided by private firms to log personal information about all foreign nationals who pass through the UK immigration system.

Also, it is understood that PI’s research uncovered information that the Home Office Biometrics database will function with tools provided by private technology companies.

Financial Firms

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

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: “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.”

The UK Government’s Stance

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.”

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