The political consequences of privatising asylum

by Jonathan Darling

In March 2012, the UK government signed six contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers and their families. These contracts mark the latest phase in a process of accommodation termed ‘dispersal’ that has, since the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, provided housing on a ‘no choice’ basis to asylum seekers across Britain. The contracts signed in 2012 became collectively known as COMPASS (Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support), and marked a significant shift in the landscape of asylum support. The COMPASS contracts transferred accommodation provision from a mixture of consortiums of local authorities, social housing associations and private providers, to just three private contractors - the multinational security services company G4S, the international services company Serco, and the accommodation partnership Clearel.

The effects of this privatisation process were the focus of a recent Home Affairs Committee investigation and report, finding the accommodation of asylum seekers in the UK to be poor quality, often inappropriately located, and beset by failures to manage complaints effectively. But what other impacts has the production of an ‘asylum market’ in the UK, as one representative of G4S put it, had on the practice of accommodating some of the most vulnerable in society? As part of a project to explore how cities across Britain have responded to dispersal, I have been examining the impacts of privatisation and highlight three points.

First, it is important to note that the UK has a long history of treating asylum as a business. From the profits made by private security firms from the UK’s detention estate, to exploitative charges for poor legal advice, asylum has been an issue of public policy from which profit has long been sought. But with the onset of COMPASS, we see an intensification of these trends. Privatisation has fragmented the accommodation system, with an increasingly uneven geography of service provision now emerging. This is because the six centralised contracts of COMPASS mask a series of subcontracting arrangements, meaning considerable variability between regions and providers in terms of the quality of accommodation and provision offered. Rather than making a more streamlined and centralised system that could be managed efficiently as promised by the market logics of neoliberalism, COMPASS has simply disguised the complexity of provision on the ground.

Second, privatisation has served to shift the balance of power between actors involved in supporting asylum seekers in the UK. This is not a move from ‘public’ to ‘private’ provision in any straightforward manner, but rather a move to change positions within what John Clarke terms the ‘dispersed state’ of contemporary governance. This is a state in which ‘the number of agents and agencies involved in delivering a particular service’ are multiplied as service providers and intermediaries become ‘the proxies of state power’, producing ‘new systems of regulation, inspection and audit’. Through COMPASS, this dispersed state has seen a transfer of competency and responsibility such that local authorities no longer have a clear role in engaging with asylum seekers dispersed to them. Together with the cuts to local authorities that austerity has effected across the UK, this has meant that local authorities no longer have the remit, nor the capacity, to form a significant part of the dispersal process. The effects of this have been to remove the knowledge, experience, and integration expertise of local authorities from the landscape of dispersal, and to transfer responsibility for vulnerable individuals to providers who are both new to this field and who lack the contextual knowledge required to support asylum seekers effectively. Whilst prior models of dispersal were in no way purely ‘public’, the dispersed state we see today is one that side-lines the knowledge and experience of local authorities.

Finally, the COMPASS transition illustrates the need to think about neoliberalisation as a process. Neoliberalisation forges alliances between formerly ‘public’ and ‘private’ organisations and interests, but it also shapes perceptual orientations and political expectations. In the context of asylum policy, this means the creation of shared understandings of asylum as a political and economic concern, most notably maintained through the positioning of asylum seekers as a ‘burden’ on both public and private stakeholders. Privatisation transmits a significant political message that this is an area of policy that can be, and should be, made profitable for those providers well-placed to meet the terms of a contract. In effect, the accommodation and support of vulnerable individuals becomes not a public concern or responsibility, but a site of market exchange, calculation, and demands for efficiency. This is a hugely important importance shift. It both illustrates the transmission of neoliberal market logics into new domains of public policy, and demonstrates how a focus on contracts and economic efficiency can serve to present those domains of policy as ‘common sense’ managerial matters of limited public concern.

The consequences of privatising asylum accommodation in Britain have thus been to produce an increasingly insecure system. Be that through the deferral of responsibility for addressing the concerns of asylum seekers, through the roll-back and regression of public services equipped to support asylum seekers, or through the discursive framing of asylum seekers as ‘burdens’ to be managed by private security contractors rather than social care professionals or public servants. In each case, the privatisation that COMPASS puts in place has not radically altered dispersal policy or changed its core intentions. But it has served to insulate that policy from the proposal of alternative models of accommodation and support.

About the Author

Jonathan Darling

I am an urban and political geographer primarily focused on the politics and ethics of forced migration. I have been at the University of Manchester since 2009, when I was appointed as Lecturer in Human Geography. Prior to that I worked at the University of St Andrews as a Teaching Fellow in Geography following a BA, MA and PhD in Geography from Durham University. Beyond these pages, you can find out more about my work, including details of online commentaries and press coverage here:

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