Dire Detention: Private Security Firms and EU Immigration

For years, the detention of immigrants in the European Union has been delegated to private security contractors by some member states. Usually governments choose this option because it brings instant expertise to the detention centers at a lower cost. However, delegating practicalities in a sensitive field such as immigration to the business agenda can lead to a poignant situation where the lines of accountability are blurred.

The United Kingdom, for example, has been using private security forms to guard detention centers for over ten years. Some of the largest security forms are located here (Sercro, G4S) and have reported expansion into mainland Europe is on the agenda. While the reports by NGO’s are good, they rarely reflect the complexity of detention issues and tend to focus too much on instances of indiscipline instead of structural issues. Take for example the incident at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal center in Bedfordshire, where last September a 23-year old Roma girl accused Serco security guards and other officials of sexual abuse to her and at least four other women and in return would promise benefits or higher chances to stay in the UK. The same firm paid an undisclosed sum to a Pakistani asylum seeker who accused a Serco nurse of sexual assault.

Asylum seekers are suffering from medical problems caused by consistently sleeping on completely wet mattresses.

Spain encounters the same problem, albeit in a slightly different way. In Spain, the closed centres, or undocumented migrants detention centers (CIE) are inaccessible for private firms. However, temporary stay centers (CETI), are open to security companies the same way centers for children or public hospitals are, they fall under the same category in law. There are two CETIs based in Spain, in Ceuta and Manilla, and both are reported to be overcrowded and suffering from substandard hygiene conditions and violence.

Recently, Greece made its first steps in accepting private contractors in their asylum policy. The government proposed €14 million a year to a private security firm willing to guard three pre-removal centers. This offer came around the same time Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) reported medical problems that asylum seekers are suffering from caused by poor conditions, the length of detention and a lack of medical assistance – for example due to consistently sleeping on completely wet mattresses and the absence of a permanent medical staff. Outsourcing this to private contractors is a contagious decision, because generally well-being of the detainees are not on the top of the business agenda. Another factor which causes friction is the fact that former members of the Golden Dawn party expressed interest in pursuing a career in these detention centers, a party known for its far-right anti-immigrant ideas, with members being called neo-Nazi’s and fascists.

While it is obvious that governments save millions of euros in border patrol and detention centers by hiring private security contractors, one must be very careful with recruiting. The realm of accountability in this scenario is blurred and prone to buck-passing. Before member states employ potentially harmful firms in a sector so delicate, with people so vulnerable and scandals muffled, they must evaluate how to properly scrutinize the firms and maintain a humane standard of living for detention centers.

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