Concerns over States contracting private security companies in migration situations


A long list of private security companies have participated in the abuse of the rights of migrants, experts pointed out during a discussion organised by the Working Group on the use of mercenaries on the sidelines of the Forum on Business and Human Rights last November in Geneva.

An employee of a private security company collects food vouchers of refugees at the refugee reception centre in Trier-Nord, Germany, August 2015 @ EPA/HARALD TITTEL

The experts highlighted, in particular, appalling human rights abuses in the context of the privatisation of immigration detention facilities and other elements by some States in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania who contract the services of private security companies to manage migration flows.

Lilian Bobea, member of the Working Group, reminded that, in a 2017 report, the experts found that outsourcing the management of immigration-related detention facilities to private providers creates great risks for the violation of human rights. “States have the obligation to oversee and monitor privatised detention facilities and take appropriate steps towards redress and remedy to protect the rights of those deprived of their liberty” said Bobea, drawing attention to the accountability and remedy challenges posed by the privatisation of immigration detention facilities. 

Blurred lines between public and private security cause frictions

Nessma Bashi, an independent legal advocate who provides alternative legal services to refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece, recalled the dire conditions in the Moria ‘hotspot’ on the island of Lesbos. The blurred lines between public and private security create confusion about the roles and responsibilities of these different actors and add to the distress felt by the individuals in the camp.

Ms. Bashi told participants that in 2016, migrants filed a complaint against the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) that had acquired the services of private security companies to manage parts of the Moria camp. Through her work, she has seen how grievances around the role of EASO’s private security contractor contribute to frictions and, in some cases, may have even hindered access to the EASO premises where the asylum procedures are conducted.  

Private security companies have also been used on both sides of the Mexico and US border. On the Mexican side of the border, Mexican lawyer, Alejandra Ortiz Díaz explained, private security guards posted at border crossings are dressed in blue, similarly to the US immigration officials, thus creating confusion over their identity.

She gave as an example individuals who have reported being discouraged from entering the US by private security personnel. This includes instances in which migrants have reportedly been told that only those with documents, such as passports, will be allowed to cross the border, despite the fact that possession of such papers is not a requirement to request asylum.

Children are held in “prison-like conditions”

Ortiz Díaz also described the terrible conditions in privately-run centres in the US in which teenage migrants are accommodated, separated from their families.
“Normally, children in this status are sent to permanent shelter facilities. These are State-licenced children's shelters that must meet certain standards of care. Most of them are run by non-profit organizations,” she said. “But when there is an increase in the number of unaccompanied children, so that these permanent shelters are at or near full capacity, unaccompanied children are sent in facilities like Homestead [detention centre].”

Homestead, although classified by the US Government as a temporary emergency facility was, from March 2018 to July 2019, run by a private for-profit company that received dozens of millions of US dollars from the Federal Government through a non-competitive bid.

Ortiz Díaz pointed out that the children detained in that facility had experienced prison-like conditions. Dozens of children were sleeping on bunk beds, in a big windowless room that received no natural light. The children were woken up at 6 a.m., when they had a mere five minutes to shower. The children were only granted two hours of free time a day and family visits were limited to 10 minutes twice a week. No physical contact was allowed between the children, even siblings, who were finally sent to bed at 10 p.m. Serious concerns had also been expressed on the quality of education and health care that the children received while in detention.

More accountability is needed

Bridget Arimond, Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the LLM Program in International Human Rights at Northwestern University, indicated that since the change in administration in late 2016, the number of migrants detained in the US had increased by 40 per cent.

On any given day, some 40,000 to 50,000 migrants are detained, she said, 70 per cent of whom are held in facilities operated by private companies. Restrictions of access to health care, and sexual and physical abuse has been reported by migrants as well as the excessive use of solitary confinement, Arimond added. Detainees, under the threat of retaliatory solitary confinement, have allegedly also been exploited for labour by these companies to considerably cut costs.

She cautioned that as the US the administration seeks to ensure long-term detention of the family units, private security providers are set to gain increasing profits if prolonged family detention becomes a viable option. “For this reason and many others now is an absolutely critical time in addressing the State duty to protect and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in relation to privatized immigrant detention,” she said.

Speaking about his experience in offshore detention on the Manus island in Papua New Guinea, Abdul Aziz Muhamat recalled the mistreatment he and fellow refugees suffered at the hands of private security providers contracted by Australia. “Companies changed but the same staff remained on the ground,” he said, raising concern over the lack of accountability for companies that benefitted from lucrative contracts over the years.

Jelena Aparac, member of the Working Group, concluded that to ensure accountability of private security providers an international legally binding instrument is needed to regulate the large range of activities of private military and security companies.  

In 2020, the Working Group on the use of mercenaries will release a report on the role of private military and security companies in immigration and border management and the impact on the protection of the rights of migrants.

20 December 2019

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