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Councils claim to give refugees ‘sanctuary’ then pay firm that GPS tags migrants

Campaigners want councils to cut ties with the company running the Home Office's GPS tracking scheme

Frankie Lister-Fell
18 April 2023, 10.00pm

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Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Councils awarded “sanctuary” status for their commitment to welcoming refugees are being urged to cut ties with an outsourcing giant that tracks migrants and asylum seekers using “torturous” ankle tags.

In 2021 the Home Office made GPS tagging a mandatory condition of release from immigration detention, to “reduce non-compliance” with bail conditions. By October, over 2,000 people on immigration bail were fitted with a tag. A 12-month pilot to tag some refugees who arrive by small boats or in the backs of lorries was also launched in June last year.

Tags trace a person’s every move in real time and the data, which can be used against people making immigration applications, is kept for up to six years after it’s removed. The process does not have the same regulation as tagging in the criminal justice system.

Who is responsible for running this service? One of the public sector’s favourite outsourcing firms: Capita. From IT administration to collecting the BBC’s licence fee, Capita’s breadth of offerings account for a reported 41% of the public sector’s outsourcing market.

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It has contracts totalling millions of pounds with more than 50 councils, including those that have been awarded a city or borough of sanctuary badge from charity City of Sanctuary UK. Among them is Hackney Council, which last month pledged to “challenge anti-refugee and anti-migrant attitudes wherever they are found”. It pays Capita north of £1m over two contracts.

Campaigners at Abolish Reporting London are now calling for councils to end all “hostile environment outsourcing” with the company.

Group member Alex Burton told openDemocracy: “It just makes me really angry. I would have thought a local council would have some sort of policy around the ethics of their outsourcing.

“Either they don't check or they don't care. It's upsetting. You want to think that you're paying your council tax towards the local community to do good, not to prop up these corporations.”

Birmingham City Council became a “city of sanctuary” in 2019 and was the first council to publicly reject the Nationality and Borders Bill. It has two contracts with Capita for “employer agent services” running from 2019 to 2026, totalling £4.2m.

Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds are other councils with Capita contracts who have expressed commitment to welcoming asylum seekers.

'I'm worried I'm going to lose my job'

Noah, a factory worker who has been in the UK since 2015, told openDemocracy his life has become unmanageable after living with a GPS tag for over a year. He was tagged after he served a two-year prison sentence and his immigration status was refused, even though his family and partner have grown up in the UK. He is appealing the decision.

He hides the tag under his clothes from his children and employer because he is ashamed of it. His name has therefore been changed.

Noah said: “I’m worried because I don’t want my kids to know what it is. I can’t go swimming, jogging or play football because I don’t want it to be seen.

“They told me the battery would last 24 hours, but after just 12 hours it runs out. Every morning at 3am I wake up early to charge it just in case. I see the kids asleep, I go to the living room, plug it in while I drink a coffee and wait for it to charge and then go back to work.

“At work I have to take a 20-minute break and quickly charge the tag in the toilet. I’m worried I’m going to lose my job. I don’t want my life to be always hiding like this. It’s just absolutely horrible.”

Nasrin Warsame, policy and research coordinator at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), agrees councils should “do more research and due diligence”. Elisa Smith, BID’s fundraising and communications manager, said she was “really shocked” by the psychological impact tags had on people she had spoken to.

One BID client, who came to the UK as a baby and is now fitted with a tag, said: “I suffer from more scrutiny in public, the police stop me, people stare, they think I must have committed a grievous crime for me to put on GPS tag. Obviously, I’m a Black male with a monitor on my ankle, the stereotype is just flashing before everyone’s eyes.”

In BID’s Every Move You Make report into the use of GPS tags, Dr Monish Bhatia, a criminology lecturer at Birkbeck University, labelled them a form of "psychological torture". One interviewee in the study said: “It’s a torture, it’s a torture. I don’t even know how to put it into words. After all the detention and all that they say that’s not enough, you know you have to be on a monitor for life. What for?"

Professor Cornelius Katona, medical and research director at the Helen Bamber Foundation, writes psychiatric reports for asylum claims and has helped people who were tagged.

He said clients found the trackers “stigmatising and uncomfortable” and were tagged, like an immigration detention sentence, “indefinitely” with no end date in sight.

When asked about Birmingham Council’s Capita contract, its equalities lead, councillor John Cotton, did not address the concerns. He said he was proud the local authority was the first to commit to signing Refugee Action’s pledge to fight the anti-refugee laws, and that he would continue to lobby the government to change its approach to asylum and refugees.

“Birmingham will continue to play our part as a city of sanctuary,” he added.

Hackney Council said when outsourcing services it "will consider workforce issues and human rights" of the supplier. Its latest contract with Capita began this month, running until 2028.

Capita did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Brighton and Hove Council had a contract with Capita. After our deadline for comment, a Brighton and Hove spokesperson got in touch to say Capita sold the service it was supplying to the council in 2020, so it no longer has a contract with the company.

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