On Oct. 12, 2010, Jimmy Mubenga was deported from Britain. The 46-year-old Angolan had come to the country as a refugee 16 years earlier. But after his involvement in a pub brawl and a subsequent criminal conviction, the government ordered his deportation. Three private security guards escorted him through Heathrow Airport and onto British Airways Flight 77 to Luanda, Angola. The exact details of what followed are still unclear and currently subject to criminal investigation.
Several passengers onboard the plane reported that Mr. Mubenga repeatedly complained that he could not breathe and that he was being held down with his head between his knees by security guards. As the airplane taxied to the runway in London, Mr. Mubenga lost consciousness and later died.
Immigration control has traditionally been viewed as an inalienable sovereign function of the state. But today migration management has increasingly been taken over by private contractors. Proponents of privatization have been keen to argue that the use of contractors does not mean that governments lose control. Yet, privatization introduces a corporate veil that blurs both public oversight and legal accountability.
Despite efforts to introduce outside supervisors, performance reports and other monitoring mechanisms, the private nature of these companies breaks the ordinary administrative chain of command, placing both governments and the public at a disadvantage in terms of ensuring transparency.
Private companies seldom have an interest in securing public oversight, as any criticism may entail negative economic consequences. Australasian Correctional Management, which ran detention centers in Australia from 1998 to 2004, was known to require medical staff members or teachers entering its facilities to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from disclosing any information regarding detainees or the administration of the centers. Being foreigners, migrants and refugees have always had a hard time gaining access to outside complaint mechanisms and advocacy institutions. As an employee in charge of reviewing disciplinary cases at a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Houston once told a reporter from this paper, “I’m the Supreme Court.”
The corporate veil also distorts lines of legal responsibility. Human rights law is largely designed on the presumption that it is states and not private companies that exercise sovereign powers like detention or border control. Legally holding governments accountable for human rights violations by contractors requires an additional step showing that it is the state and not just the corporation or individual employee that is responsible for the misconduct.
Mr. Mubenga’s case is not unique. Numerous reports have been filed about misconduct, violence and abuse perpetrated by contractors carrying out migration functions. The three security guards responsible for deporting Mr. Mubenga worked for the Anglo-Danish security company G4S. Before Mr. Mubenga’s death, G4S held the exclusive contract with the U.K. Border Agency to provide escorts for immigration detainees deported from the country. The firm subsequently lost this contract, but this didn’t end its involvement in managing migration.
As the world’s largest security company with more than 650,000 employees, G4S is involved in a plethora of migration functions all over the world, from operating immigration detention centers in Britain to carrying out passenger screening at airports in Europe, Canada and the Middle East. In America, G4S operates a fleet of custom-built fortified buses that serve as deportation transports for illegal migrants caught along the United States-Mexico border. Just last month, the U.K. Border Agency signed a new contract with G4S worth up to $337 million to house asylum seekers.
G4S’s success in this market shows that deportation, detention and border control have become big business. Boeing’s current contract to set up and operate a high-tech border surveillance system along the United States-Mexico border is worth $1.3 billion and involves nearly 100 subcontractors. The Florida-based Geo Group — one of G4S’s main competitors — manages 7,000 detention beds in the United States and, until recently, at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, where migrants intercepted in the Caribbean are transferred. N.G.O.s and international organizations profit, too. In 2010, the International Organization for Migration was paid $265 million to assist governments in returning migrants to their home countries, among other activities.
The migration control industry covers not only detention and deportations but also border control. Many airlines today employ former immigration officers or themselves contract security companies to perform the document, forgery and profiling checks required by destination states. In Israel, the West Bank checkpoints are gradually being transferred to private security companies.
Placing responsibility at lower levels may serve to insulate governments from lawsuits. In the Mubenga case, the three private security guards involved in the deportation were initially arrested. Following accusations from G4S employees that senior management had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about poor training and unsafe restraint techniques, charges against the company are now being considered. Yet none of these lawsuits are likely to address whether the U.K. Border Agency should face criminal liability for Mr. Mubenga’s death because of its decision to outsource deportations in the first place.
Even if governments want to re-establish state control over migration, it isn’t so easy. Political promises to renationalize immigration detention centers in Britain have so far remained unfulfilled despite repeated reports of abuse and mistreatment. And privatization, once pursued, is difficult to reverse.
The United States discovered this when, in the aftermath of 9/11, it was faced with the challenge of hiring 45,000 employees for the newly established Transportation Security Administration to recoup sovereign control over previously private airport security. And private contractors work to shape policy as well. When Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 immigration bill was passed, 30 out of 36 co-sponsors had received donations from private prison companies or their lobbyists.
Today, government outsourcing has given rise to an industry that encompasses nearly every aspect of migration management in countries across the globe. This shift comes at a price: It eliminates government accountability and runs roughshod over the rights of those subjected to private corporations’ control. And unless governments reassert control over what used to be a core sovereign function of the state, many more Jimmy Mubengas are likely to die.
Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and a co-editor of the forthcoming book The Migration Industry.