Imagine having to wear an electronic device that means the government can know exactly where you are 24/7. Imagine having to stay tethered to a charger for 3-4 hours at a time, because you'll be punished if the battery goes flat. Imagine that that same government is looking for any excuse to deport you. Imagine a corporation that profits from all this.
This is the reality for more and more UK asylum seekers, forced to wear GPS ankle tags or carry GPS fingerprint scanners - humiliated, controlled, spied on, stigmatised. This is all part of a grander scheme to make migrants' lives in the UK difficult, the 'hostile environment' policy - which has been found, by the government itself, to have disproportionately impacted racialised people and communities. The 'hostile environment' has now been rebranded as the 'Compliant Environment', fooling no one as to the continued hostility it perpetrates and its lack of human rights compliance.
Capita PLC, a multinational company, is delivering a lucrative surveillance contract on behalf of the UK Home Office, effectively profiting from the degrading treatment of people in vulnerable situations. How much? The contract is valued at £38 million a year. Capita PLC's role in the government's hostile environment strategy is particularly problematic when compared to their public boasting about how 'black lives matter' and how they are 'taking a stand' against racism. We believe it is hypocritical to make these grandstanding statements while profiting from racialised surveillance - the government itself has recognised that its expansion of electronic monitoring in immigration enforcement means certain nationalities are more likely to be subjected to this surveillance. If you're going to talk the talk, then walk the walk, and walk away from enabling the surveillance of migrants.
We're calling on Capita PLC to stop providing EMS services to the Home Office. Capita PLC claim to be a purpose-driven business, but what kind of purpose is degrading and controlling vulnerable people on behalf of a government that openly boasts about creating a hostile environment for migrants?
We also want other outsourcing companies to take a stand and say no to government contracts that deliver nothing but misery. When outsourcing companies refuse to do the government's dirty work, and start putting people before profits, then governments can no longer outsource misery.
Who are Capita?
Capita PLC, a process outsourcing company, is profiting from the UK Home Office's'hostile environment' policies, by taking on a lucrative contract to track migrants' GPS location 24/7. It's invasive, coercive and inefficient - it just makes the lives of non-British citizens, including asylum seekers and many born and raised in the UK, more difficult than they already are.
What is GPS tracking, how does the Home Office use it and why is it bad?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a network of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something or someone.
Since November 2020, the Home Office has been using GPS technology to monitor (24/7, every minute of the day and night) the location of non-British citizens on immigration bail, including asylum seekers and many born or raised in the UK. People are made to wear GPS ankle tags ('fitted devices') or GPS-enabled fingerprint scanners ('non-fitted devices'). GPS fingerprint scanners ping people up to 5 times a day at random times, asking them to scan their fingerprints to confirm they're actually carrying the tracker.
By tracking people's location 24/7, the Home Office can build an intimate and comprehensive picture of people's lives - identifying everyday habits and movements, permanent or temporary places of residence, hobbies and other activities, social relationships, political, religious or philosophical interests, health concerns, consumption patterns, etc. Due to its particularly intrusive nature, electronic monitoring in the migration context is actively discouraged by human rights experts and intergovernmental bodies. It's currently subject to a complaint to the UK's data protection authority, as well as individual claims challenging the human rights compliance and legality of the scheme.
Of particular concern is that the Home Office granted itself the right to use a person's location history data against them when they argue, through "Article 8 claims", that they shouldn't be deported - based on their human right to private and family life. This is not provided for in law, and risks making people prey to life-changing and heartbreaking decisions based on inaccurate, biased or misinterpreted data. Data can be misused or location information can be misinterpreted. It also ignores the fact that GPS tags have been proven to impact people's relationships with their families - particularly children. On top of all this, the tracking data is retained for 6 years after the end of a monitoring order - for unclear purposes, and without a positive basis in law for such a long retention period.
Research has found that the use of GPS tracking causes a number of debilitating and harmful outcomes for individuals including, but not limited, to:
Increasing social isolation and stigma
A detrimental impact upon people’s mental health, in particular leading to anxiety, stress, depression & PTSD
A disruptive and undermining impact upon interpersonal and familial relationships, such as the ability to care for children
Physical pain or discomfort, with varying levels of severity
Research has also found that the time taken to charge GPS tags devices is often long, restricting people to their charging point in their homes, or requiring them to interrupt daily activities to run to a plug.
Tracking also confounds feelings of powerlessness and being ‘in limbo’ as people are unaware of their rights and how to make representations to get their tag removed, or that it is even possible to challenge being tracked. There is no legal limit to how long a person can be tagged where they are subject to immigration bail, and cases against the Home Office have shown they are not doing their regular reviews. Some people are therefore tagged for months or years, awaiting decisions on their immigration applications.
People often describe their experience as 'like an open-air prison'.
"You’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your block or your neighborhood. One false step (or one malfunction of the GPS tracking device) will bring cops to your front door, your workplace, or wherever they find you and snatch you right back to jail. [...] Many reformers rightly point out that an ankle bracelet is preferable to a prison cell. Yet I find it difficult to call this progress. As I see it, digital prisons are to mass incarceration what Jim Crow was to slavery." Michelle Alexander, The New York Times
GPS tracking is not a more humane alternative to immigration detention, it's a constant reminder that at any moment you could be located and detained by immigration officers. It's also an extension of detention outside the physical walls of a detention centre: numbers show that alternatives to detention never actually reduce detention numbers, but only expand the size of state-controlled populations.
Does it even work? Not according to the National Audit Office, and it seems the government has known this for a while: “The lack of evidence for the efficacy of tagging is a long-standing issue and HMPPS acknowledges that the evidence base remains weak. In 2006, the Committee of Public Accounts recommended that government should establish how tagging affects reoffending. However, HMPPS has yet to overcome data availability and quality issues […] and is therefore currently heavily reliant on anecdotal information.”
The Public Accounts Committee has also issued a damning review of electronic monitoring in criminal justice, claiming that “The Ministry and HMPPS still do not know what works and for who, and whether tagging reduces reoffending. HMPPS has committed to improving access to data and evaluating its new tagging expansion projects, but appears unambitious about the level of insight that it expects to achieve.”
Who can be tracked?
Since 2016, anyone in the UK can be tracked as part of their immigration bail conditions. This includes people born and/or raised in the UK as well as those seeking asylum. And at the end of 2020, the Home Office started moving people from radio frequency tags (ankle tags that only measure the distance between your home and your tag) to GPS tags (ankle tags that monitor your precise location every minute of the day, 24/7). In most cases the Home Office retains the power to impose bail conditions, such as being subject to electronic monitoring.
The Home Office has since expanded the population subject to GPS tracking to anyone arriving to the UK via so-called 'irregular routes', such as asylum seekers arriving on small boats, including those facing deportation to Rwanda - which, now that the government has effectively removed or made near inaccessible all 'regular routes' to asylum, could mean any asylum seeker. The UK government's own statistics show that the vast majority of asylum seekers arrived by small boats - which is a consequence of the lack of legal or accessible routes. The Home Office has brought in this sweeping expansion of its GPS tracking of migrants without a change to the law, thereby bypassing parliamentary scrutiny.
The expansion of GPS tracking is an important reminder that when the Home Office and its contractors implement oppressive systems and create the technology and infrastructure required to operate them, there is no limit on who could be targeted next.
What is your campaign against Capita demanding?
We're asking Capita PLC to do the right thing, and to stop providing electronic monitoring services to the Home Office. Capita can stop delivering enabling a harmful, degrading and racist policy, and decide to take on life-affirming contracts, in compliance with the values they claim to pursue, such as anti-racism driving ethical business.
We're asking them to watch and listen to the testimonies of people who have been tagged (see Video 1 and Video 2), to read experts' and organisations' concerns, and to think twice about their ability to uphold their corporate values while profiting from this practice.
What if people disappear and/or abscond? How will authorities keep track of people?
People do not just disappear, especially not by virtue of being undocumented. The Home Office argues it wants to use GPS tracking to prevent absconding. However, absconding rates are low, at 1% in 2020 and oscillating from year to year between 1 and 3%.
This shows a seismic disconnect between rhetoric and reality. It is a speculative and generic bias, which is not rooted in fact.
How is this 'racialised' surveillance?
Subjecting people to GPS tracking is part of the UK government's sinister and damaging Hostile Environment policy - an attempt to make people's lives so unbearable in the UK that they voluntarily leave or are deterred from coming in the first place.
The Home Office’s own equality impact assessment of the Hostile Environment (recently re-named by Ministers as the 'Compliant Environment'), states: “It would initially appear that data indicates migrants impacted by the compliant environment are more likely to be from one of a select number of nationalities rather than a wide-range, and may also be more likely to be of South-East Asian or Black ethnicity … This means that the internal data suggests some of the compliant environment measures may disproportionately impact on people of colour.”
"The cohort of people subject to immigration bail and foreign national offenders, is by definition, made up of overseas nationals, and as such this policy change may disproportionately affect some nationalities."
Those tagged by Capita for immigration purposes will have already experienced several layers of discrimination. For example, at the end of a criminal sentence, a person without British nationality (i.e. people from migrant backgrounds), even if born and/or raised in the UK, will be subject to 24/7 GPS monitoring if released from prison and/or a detention centre. The UK has made it a criminal offence to enter the UK without leave to enter, hence migrants are doubly criminalised - without any further offence they are liable to being tagged. Since June 2022 (the 'Expansion Pilot'), anyone who enters the UK by irregular routes can be tagged.
In the words of a client of Bail for Immigration Detainees, who came to the UK as a baby and is wearing a tag fitted by Capita:
“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.” - BID, PLP and Medical Justice Report, Page 25
Academic literature has already established the link between racialised surveillance and migration control: "the main goal of the immigration system is not to integrate or rehabilitate, but segregate and confine illegalised and racialised bodies into designated ‘waiting zones’ (which can be in community or detention centres), subject them to surveillance and eventually deportation and banishment".
Capita PLC puts out statements about 'Black Lives Matter' and claim that they are taking a stand against racism. They write blogs about it, they tweet about it, they ally themselves to Black History Month, but we believe this is ultimately hypocritical if they then decide to chase contacts and profit from racist hostile environment policies. By enabling racialised surveillance, Capita is compounding this discrimination and laying the foundation for the tagging of increasingly vulnerable groups.
So our campaign is calling out a company that talks the talk about why Black lives matter, but doesn't always walk the walk.
What data is collected?
GPS trackers capture ‘trail data’. This records the person’s GPS location every minute of the day and night, 24 hours a day. The data builds an intimate picture of an individual’s life – their daily routine, work, political affiliations, relationships, health problems, where they shop, their religious places of worship, community centres, specialised surgeries etc. Read more in our GPS ankle tags experiment.
The Home Office wants to use trail data to assess people's claims that they shouldn't be deported, based on their human right to private and family life. This could lead to unlawful decisions being made, potentially resulting in terrible, life-changing consequences for individuals and their families, while denying people appeal rights and the ability to address or respond to findings based on trail data. Research has also shown that tagging negatively impacts people's relationships with their families, especially with their children.
The GPS trail data is stored on Capita’s EMS’ internal servers. It can be accessed by Home Office staff for a variety of reasons. People who are tracked are unlikely to be aware of what data is collected, how long it's stored for, what it's used for and who it's shared with.
If it's a government contract, then what's wrong with a company taking it on? Why not just complain to the Home Office instead?
Is the government always right? Are its policies and practices always ethical, even legal? Huge corporations like Capita PLC can't ignore these questions and just take government money because it's available. They're also expected under international human rights standards to carry out due diligence into their operations to avoid contributing to adverse human rights impacts. Especially when Capita PLC makes strident claims about being a responsible business. We find it hypocritical to claim to be "acting as a force for good – creating better outcomes – for today, for tomorrow and for generations to come", while they take on a government contract where the only meaningful outcome is to control people and make their lives unbearable.
The Home Office is not only responsible for thousands of individual cases of mistreatment, its policies are frequently found to be in breach of international law, domestic law and its own guidance. This includes:
The UNHCR has confirmed that the Nationality & Borders Act violates the UK's obligations under international law, and that the new Illegal Migration Bill, if passed, would do so as well.
In the financial year 2021-22, the Home Office issued a record number of compensation payments for unlawful detention, totalling around £13 million. It cannot be ethical to implement the hostile policies of a department responsible for such a litany of failures. The UK's reputation as a country that promotes the rule of law has been severely dented by these measures, and companies have a responsibility not to enable them.
Why not just sit down with Capita and tell them your concerns? Why a public campaign against them?
We wrote to Capita about our concerns over their contract to track the location of migrants.
In their short response, Capita claim that they deliver their service with 'care and empathy.'
The people we have spoken to who actually wear the tags haven't said anything to us about "care and empathy" - instead, they've told us about stigma, humiliation, control, harassment, discrimination and racialised surveillance.
Capita's response to us was ultimately a short, shallow, corporate-speak brush off letter. They haven't so far shown a willingness to reflect on what they are doing, so we decided to publicly call them out. Hopefully alongside public pressure, they will engage with our concerns properly.
What can you do if you are being forced to wear a tracking device?