Advocates urge Canadian government not to go further down the route of privatising immigration detention
Dramatic changes to Canada’s immigration laws expected to come into effect in December will mean that asylum seekers face more restrictions and have less time to make a claim. Advocates fear this will lead to more detentions and further opportunities for private prison operators to cash in.
Immigration detention is a growth industry around the world, and some of the biggest private security and prison firms are the beneficiaries. In Canada, increased government use of by immigration detention has refugee lawyers and advocates worried, particularly after the passage of the tough new immigration laws in June.
Serco is one of the biggest players in the immigration detention business worldwide. The company, which provides public services to governments around the world, including Canada – where it runs everything from the Ontario driver’s education and licencing program to military bases in Newfoundland and Labrador – has been lobbying Ottawa on the subject of immigration service delivery.
“The government has indicated that they expect to make increased use of detention for refugee claimants,” said Janet Cleveland, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies the effects of detention on asylum seekers.
“We have a very strong position saying people should not be incarcerated when they’re not criminals,” said Cleveland, adding that this approach should be extended to asylum seekers entering the country. “Incarceration is absolutely unjustified because there’s essentially no flight risk.”
Asylum seekers hope to be accepted as refugees, added Cleveland.
The changes to Canadian law come after nearly two years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government signalling its intention to crack down on human smuggling and after months of the immigration minister, Jason Kenney, warning of “bogus refugees” taking advantage of Canadian generosity.
Detention is mandatory in cases in which the identity of the claimant cannot be established, human smuggling is suspected or if the claimant arrived in the country by “irregular arrival”. According to some critics, these criteria could include all asylum seekers coming to Canada.
Canadian border officials can order asylum seekers held for an initial two-week period, then for as much as six months before review. The Harper government’s original plan called for one year’s detention, before it pulled back in the face of a chorus of opposition from civil groups.
“Is that coming out of the need to detain people who are seeking refuge in Canada, or is that being driven by companies… who stand to profit tremendously [from] incarcerating people?” said Justin Piché, an assistant professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa who is also a prison-policy blogger.
In June, during a parliamentary debate on the new legislation, Kenney insisted that “no immigrant is imprisoned in immigration detention centres. All immigrants are free to leave Canada at any time. It is not imprisonment.” But a 2012 Global Detention Project report on Canada lists it as one of the only western countries that actively and increasingly detains asylum seekers in correctional facilities, including maximum-security prisons, in apparent contravention of international human rights norms.
The ability to claim asylum is not a criminal offence. As an immigration lawyer, Douglas Cannon, put it when speaking to the Times Colonist newspaper: “It’s a right.”
The Guardian made repeated requests to speak with Kenney but the minister was unavailable to comment.
‘The Heritage Inn’
Officially, Canada has four immigration holding centres (IHCs): one in Laval, near Montreal; one at Vancouver International Airport; a high-security IHC for security certificate detainees in Kingston, Ontario; and the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. The last-named used to be an airport motel, and it is sometimes referred to by its past name, “the Heritage Inn”.
The multinational security firm G4S, which was recently in the spotlight for understaffing security at the London Olympic Games, has the contract to provide security at the IHCs in Toronto and Laval, while the Corbel Management Corporation has had the contract to manage the Toronto facility since 2003. Government records show that contract to have been worth more than $19m between 2004 and 2008. The Toronto IHC recently underwent an expansion, to increase its capacity from 120 to 195 beds. The renovations were completed in September, according to a spokesperson for the CBSA.
Perhaps the most curious lobbying effort around immigration detention comes from BD Hamilton and Associates, a boutique real-estate firm that shares its address with a private surgical clinic in Toronto. According to its registration, the company was seeking to “work with the Government of Canada to build a refugee detention centre in Toronto”. Bridget Hamilton, who is listed as the principal of the company, was a director of the Corbel Management Corporation until 2009. Her husband, Dr James Hamilton, is president and medical director of the clinic.
“The proposal called for a P3 [public-private partnership] arrangement that was to be financed by Hamilton and Associates and potentially other Canadian registered/incorporated investors,” said Emily Wehbi, of the prominent lobbying firm National Public Relations, the registered lobbyist for BD Hamilton.
The government rejected Hamilton’s proposal in June, according to Wehbi, but records show the company is now seeking to “work with the Government of Canada on the escorted removals process” of deportees.
In March, Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, met Serco executives who flew in from the UK. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, also attended the meeting.
“They’ve [Serco] never had the opportunity to speak with officials… about services that they deliver from an immigration and citizenship perspective,” said Dykstra, who was quick to point out that the meeting wasn’t about detention specifically but instead aimed to “broaden our horizons about the services they [Serco] have to offer, to see if there’s a way in which somewhere down-the-line they could assist the Canadian government.”
In September 2010, Kenney toured two Serco-run detention centres in Australia, as part of a fact-finding tour into Australia’s anti-human smuggling initiatives. He tweeted that he had “learned a lot”.
In April 2011, detainees at the Serco-run Villawood facility in Australia rioted in protest at the length of their detention. A month before, a protest that authorities labelled an attempted breakout by asylum seekers detained at Serco’s offshore Christmas Island facility had resulted in a number of buildings being burned to the ground and detainees being injured after police used bean-bag rounds and tear gas.
Serco declined requests to comment on this story.
Janet Cleveland believes it would be a mistake for Canada to go further in the direction of privatising immigration detention, by following the lead of Australia and the US. “My presumption is that the conditions would be far worse.” she said. “There would be less control, less oversight and so on.”
Justin Piché said: “By planning, by touring these different facilities, by having meetings with these different companies, it suggests that perhaps they [the Harper government] don’t expect this bill to deter anything, and what they’re in fact doing is creating a useful crisis in the form of mandatory detention that will be resolved by privatized detention facilities.”
Professor Tim Evans must live in an ivory tower (Shut one in three hospitals to improve care, says top doctor, 22 September). Most medical staff are just coping with the workload now, and opening hospitals for full services all weekend would necessitate more staff. These hospital closures are about increasing opportunities for privatisation.
The evidence is very clear that if you want to save lives you need to have hospitals near to patients. Death rates rise 20% for every seven miles a patient travels. For two days this year when flash floods hit Gateshead, no one was able to travel far. If we had only had a casualty department in Newcastle rather than Gateshead itself, it is difficult to imagine what might have happened.
Later this year Queen Elizabeth Hospital Gateshead is going to stop providing 24-hour inpatient care to children, and it has just been announced that there will be no overnight emergency care. For patients who use public transport this is a problem and for those who have to drive and who fall ill during rush hour this will mean at least an hour more on their journey time. It would be helpful if innovation was based on evidence rather than political expediency.
Dr Helen Murrell
Newcastle upon Tyne
• Go into the red and you haven’t got enough money to pay for staff and services. Achieve a surplus, and you are hoarding cash. NHS organisations can’t win, so it is high time we got away from a simplistic debate about how many NHS and foundation trusts break even each year (NHS has cash reserves of £4bn, report shows, 20 September).
Foundation trusts are now the majority of hospital providers, have the freedom to run their own affairs, and can generate a surplus to reinvest in patient care. Unlike other NHS trusts they are also allowed to run a short-term deficit, and this can sometimes be a sensible way of managing their finances. Of the 21 foundation trusts operating a deficit in 2011-12, 13 planned to be in deficit, nine are planning to return to surplus in 2012-13, and five had deficits of below £1m (on average less than 0.3% of turnover).
It is therefore misleading to use the number of foundation trusts in deficit as an indicator for assessing the NHS as a whole. As the independent regulator of foundation trusts, we use a more sophisticated risk rating which indicates that 11 foundation trusts are currently in some financial difficulty – fewer than one in 10 – and those with the most acute difficulties are receiving specialist help.
• When procuring the contract for the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall the PCT would have specified a level of service and bidders would have extrapolated their costs from the staff numbers required to support that level of service (Serco provided false data hundreds of times on GP service, 21 September). The fact that Serco subsequently skimped on their staffing levels suggests that they had undercut other bids that had been prepared more realistically.
The PCT’s statement that despite failing to meet service targets and lying about it Serco’s service was “fundamentally safe and effective” is bizarre. We can only presume that the PCT was profligate with public money in pitching its service levels too high in the first place.
Schemes have only enriched security companies including G4S, says officer as ministers prepare another £3bn worth of contracts
Nearly £1bn has been spent on the electronic tagging of criminals over the past 13 years with little effect on cutting offending rates, offering little value for money and serving only to enrich two or three private security companies, one of which is G4S, a senior police officer has claimed.
Chris Miller, a former expert on tagging at the Association of Chief Police Officers, who stood down as Hertfordshire’s assistant chief constable last year, said that much of the potential of electronic monitoring to keep communities safe in Britain has not been realised.
“The current contracting arrangements for electronic monitoring have all but squeezed innovation out of the picture and stifled progress,” he writes in a foreword to a report by the Policy Exchange thinktank published on Monday.
“Electronic tag technology used in most cases today is hardly any different from what it was in 1989, when it was first used in the UK. The future arrangements must not be allowed to continue to hold us back,” writes Miller. He says the problem has centred on a “sclerotic, centrally controlled, top-down system that has enriched two or three large suppliers, that lacks the innovation and flexibility of international comparators and that fails to demonstrate either that it is value for money or that it does anything to reduce offending”.
The Ministry of Justice has spent £963m on tagging contracts over the past 13 years. Two companies, Serco and G4S, have taken the bulk of the work, putting ankle and wrist tags on more than 100,000 offenders every year, mainly to monitor their compliance with night-time curfew orders which do little to cut reoffending during the day.
Ministry officials are about to invite bids for contracts for the next nine years, thought to be worth up to £3bn. The Policy Exchange report, Future of Corrections, says one in four police forces regards electronic tagging as ineffective.
“In the US there are a number of localised suppliers, meaning that the police and probation service are given the most up to date GPS technology to track the movements of a criminal 24/7,” said Rory Geoghegan, the report’s author.
He said in the US ankle bracelets had become smaller, smarter and more durable and were GPS-enabled so that police can pinpoint offenders’ locations at all times, but the lack of competition in Britain meant the taxpayer was losing out.
“We desperately need to create a real market so that the police can get the technology they need to cut burglary, cut robbery and other crimes that have a massive impact on victims and community,” he said.
Miller said that, as Hertfordshire’s head of crime, he had tried satellite tracking technology for prolific offenders, polygraph testing of internet child pornography users, and alcohol diversion programmes for those caught drunk in public places. But each initiative had been greeted in Whitehall with reactions ranging from incredulity to downright obstruction.
The Policy Exchange pamphlet argues that the police and crime commissioners due to be elected in November should be given the power to decide how much money, if any, is spent on tagging and who should provide the services.