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Barbara, tagged and monitored like a criminal

Barbara is an asylum seeker living in the UK. How the government’s immigration crackdown creates opportunities for humiliation and profit.

Asylum-seeker Barbara is forced to wear a tag (John Grayson)

Barbara (not her real name) is not a criminal. She travelled from an African country and claimed asylum in the UK.

The Home Office refused her claim and locked her up for eight months in Yarl’s Wood, the Bedfordshire detention centre, run by Serco, notorious for guards’ sexual abuse of inmates and racist behaviour.

“I really can’t talk about that, why do they treat us like that?” Barbara said.

Barbara lodged an appeal, was released from Yarl’s Wood and eventually housed in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, with seven other women from various countries, sharing a room with one of them.

She says that two weeks after her arrival in Barnsley: “Someone from the Home Office came and made me wear a tag. I have to report to the Sheffield centre and sign once a week. I am tagged and cannot go out before seven in the morning and have to be in by seven in the evening.”

“They’re tagging all the women coming out of Yarl’s Wood,” Barbara said. “I know three women in Leeds wearing tags.”

This is the first time in the three years I have worked alongside asylum housing tenants that I have encountered tagging.

Electronic tagging is used in the criminal justice system to monitor offenders and to disrupt offending patterns. Imposing tags and curfews on asylum seekers, who have committed no crime, is an extension of this intrusive power that should worry all of us, for who is next?

Asylum seekers are already closely monitored. Three years ago the government contracted out the provision of asylum seeker housing to G4S, Serco and Reliance, three companies known among asylum seekers as the people who drove them to detention centres and locked them up. 

Barbara’s landlord is the international security and surveillance company G4S. In every G4S house there is an attendance register in the hallway or kitchen that residents must sign. G4S is supposed to report absences to the Home Office. 

Barbara’s all-women house is regularly checked by G4S staff — one of whom is a man. “The G4S woman is really nice, she tells us when she is coming in and shouts to us to check we’re in.” Barbara says. “The man never phones — he just bursts in.”

Frustrated by the monitoring, Barbara says: “I asked them why they are tagging me, the man said something about us ‘absconding’.”

Asylum housing is becoming an extension of detention.

Last week I asked the Home Office which company was tagging asylum seekers like Barbara and why? When were the first tags imposed and how many asylum seekers have been tagged since then?

The Home Office replied that they were using their powers under the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 to “electronically tag individuals who are liable to detention, but released on temporary admission or bail”. Decisions on tagging are being taken by Home Office civil servants – just like the decisions to send people to immigration detention centres.

“Capita are responsible for the tagging, via an existing contract with the Ministry of Justice,” said the Home Office. A spokeswoman refused to say how many asylum seekers had been tagged nor when the practice had started. She said I was welcome to submit a Freedom of Information request.

According to Capita’s website, the company was handed a new £400 million contract in 2013 from the Ministry of Justice for six years and was given flexibility to involve other government department.

“The flexible, scalable service has been designed to enable other government bodies, for example, the probation services, the NHS and social care agencies, to procure related services,” says Capita.

It is not unusual for Foreign National Prisoners (FNPs) when released on bail to be tagged. There were further proposals in the Queen’s Speech to extend this with a proposal that “All foreign criminals awaiting deportation will be fitted with satellite tracking tags.”

But the use of tags on people living in asylum housing appears to be something new.

G4S sources suggest that around twenty people have been tagged in the company’s Yorkshire asylum housing in the past few months.

A growing market

Barbara has to report each week in Sheffield, at Vulcan house the Home Office HQ. A few hundred yards away the Capita building, with its heli pad, dominates the Eastern approach to Sheffield. (This past January Capita signed an extension to its existing seven-year “transformation partnership with the Council” which commenced in January 2009, by up to a further six years to 2022, earning the company “additional revenue of approximately £140-£170 million”. The company “will continue to deliver the core range of services on behalf of the Council, including ICT, revenues, benefits, HR and payroll and financial business transactions.”)

The Capita building, Sheffield (John Grayson)

Capita is one of a few huge companies for whom the government’s crackdown on immigration creates further opportunities for profit. 

Barbara’s landlord, G4S, was involved in the unlawful killing of asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga during a failed deportation attempt in October 2010. 

After that, G4S lost its Home Office escort contract to a cut-price competitor called Reliance. The G4S workforce, among whom, the coroner had said, there was a “culture of racism” transferred to Reliance. 

Then, in August 2012, the outsourcing giant Capita bought Reliance and absorbed it into the Capita subsidiary Tascor which claims to be “the largest private sector provider of secure immigration detainee escorting worldwide…Tascor manages and operates a number of the Home Office critical front line support functions….and are responsible for the safe and secure escorting and removal of more than 18,000 individuals from the UK each year.” 

In 2014 prisons inspector Nick Hardwick observed that Tascor guards deporting people from Britain treated them as “commodities to be delivered rather than as vulnerable individuals deserving of attention”. 

Hardwick said: “some Tascor private security staff made loud animal noises, swore loudly in front of deportees and fell asleep, despite being in charge of someone identified as at risk of self-harm.”

Hardwick expressed concern that the private security escorts knew little of the outcome of the inquiry into the death of Jimmy Mubenga while being restrained during a scheduled flight removal in 2010: “Escorts had still not been provided with training on the use of force in confined environments such as aircraft two-and-a-half years since inspectors first recommended it.” 

It was Capita that facilitated the Home Office’s notorious “Go Home” campaign of 2013, sending around 58,000 texts directly to people the Home Office had identified as “living illegally” in the UK. For reasons that have never been explained, the recipients included prominent civil rights activist and longstanding British passport holder Suresh Grover.

As Capita and the Home Office tag and humiliate women asylum seekers in Yorkshire they might ponder the fact that recently the high court ordered the removal of a terror suspect’s monitoring tag because of a deterioration in his mental health. As the Guardian reports: “Requiring him to continue wearing the tag was a breach of article three of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.” 

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