Students call for Durham to end contract with Mitie over link to local refugee detention centre

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Students have relaunched a Durham branch of the Mitie Must Fall movement, joining the national campaign protesting universities who hold contracts with controversial company, Mitie Group PLC. 

Mitie Must Fall Durham is pushing for an end to the University’s £5 million facility management contract with the company, calling for staff to be brought in-house. 

Mitie is the largest provider of management services to immigration removal centres in the UK, including the newly opened Derwentside IRC in County Durham. 

Derwentside has been at the centre of local and national protests, and the subject of several legal challenges. Approximately 80 women can be held in detention for indefinite periods of time at the Derwentside site, which became fully operational in December 2021. 

Student campaigners emailed Vice-Chancellor Professor Karen O’Brien on March 24th to raise concerns about the University’s relationship with the company.

The email stressed that the majority of detainees at the Mitie-run Derwentside, only a half-hour drive from Durham, have “endured human trafficking, modern slavery, abuse, torture, gender-based violence and other unimaginable crimes” and that Mitie are “contributing to the re-traumatisation of already affected individuals” by playing a front-line operational role in the detention of potentially vulnerable immigrants. When contacted for comment, Mitie said that they had no control over the background of those detained as they do not set national immigration policies.

The activists go on to label Mitie as a “disgraceful” corporation, listing various scandals involving the company in recent years, including when Mitie was found to have broken Covid-19 safety laws due to the unsafe conditions its staff were working in at a hospital.

Mitie play a front-line operational role in the detention of potentially vulnerable immigrants

Another incident highlighted by the activists involved Mitie’s failure to escalate the investigation of racist messages, including mockery of the Syrian refugee crisis, shared by members of its immigration staff in a 120-strong WhatsApp group chat. One Mitie worker told The Guardian: “Things are the worst they’ve ever been with bullying and racism. People are too scared to speak out for fear of facing further bullying or being sacked.”

In response to this, Mitie highlighted that those involved were only a small proportion of the company’s workforce, and that the allegations were treated “with the utmost seriousness”, referring to the internal investigation that was launched but not properly escalated in line with internal procedures. They added that the group chat was not a work channel, but a private group set up by a third party.

The email concludes: “The longer your relationships with Mitie persist, the longer you are endorsing their mistreatment of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, the longer you are endorsing their mistreatment of workers.”

At the time of writing, campaigners are still waiting for a response to their email.

The University has repeatedly emphasised that its contract is with Mitie FM Ltd, rather than Mitie Care and Custody which manages the detention centres.

However, research by Palatinate shows that Mitie Group PLC is the majority shareholder in both Mitie FM Ltd and Mitie Care and Custody, that there is significant overlap in the boards of directors of both firms, and that they share an address. 

Mitie Group PLC have also previously advertised job opportunities for University Security Officers and Covid Marshalls on the same site as opportunities for Detention Custody Officers.

An open letter launched by the campaigners, specifically pushing the University not to commit to a new contract with Mitie, has already gained upwards of 220 signatures. It claims that the University is currently “a body of hypocrisy” which “cannot claim to welcome migrant students, refugees, and international students while being complicit in abhorrent practices and treatment of migrants” by continuing its partnership with Mitie.

The University “cannot claim to welcome migrant students, refugees, and international students whilte being complicit in abhorrent practices and treatment of migrants”

Mitie must fall durham open letter

In conversation with Palatinate, Lauren Powdrell, President of Durham Student Action for Refugees (STAR) and active member of the Mitie Must Fall movement, emphasised the “hypocrisy” of the fact that the University claims to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in their war against Russia “despite the fact that it is likely that Ukrainian refugees could end up in detention centres managed by the very same company contracted by the University in a £5 million contract”.

In addition to Derwentside, Mitie manages the Kent Intake Unit (KIU) at Dover, a short-term facility to hold asylum-seekers and refugees who have crossed the Channel in inflatable boats. In 2021, it was found by an unannounced inspection that, despite detention staff having an overall “respectful” manner towards the individuals under their care, there were specific concerns around Mitie’s treatment of vulnerable individuals.

The report details that official forms designed to keep record of vulnerable adults, despite Mitie staff receiving awareness training in vulnerability, evidenced “little interaction and inquiry” about the needs of vulnerable individuals. Further, the report describes an incident where detention officers attempted to restrain a 14-year-old boy with severe mental health issues who was attempting to harm himself, and there was “repeated use of unauthorised and potentially dangerous techniques”. Footage of the incident was “disturbing”. Mitie has since suspended the staff members.

The campaigners plan to present the signed open letter to the Vice-Chancellor as part of a cross-university National Day of Action Against Mitie on May 27th 2022.

Powdrell tells Palatinate that a large-scale protest, involving speeches, music, and drama groups is being planned at the Science Site. Protesters will then “march down to the Vice-Chancellor’s office and hand her the open letter”.

Powdrell adds: “My student fees, just like everyone else’s, are directly impacted in this contract. This issue is therefore relevant to all students.”

The University responded to the accusations of the campaign group by saying, “We awarded a new facility management contract with Mitie in 2018, following a rigorous, transparent and competitive procurement process. Representation from the student body was included, and consideration of our corporate, social and environmental responsibilities and equality and diversity commitments.

“We will review our contract with Mitie at the point of renewal, as with any other contract.”

A Mitie spokesperson said in a statement: “As one of Britain’s largest employers we are proud of the hard work and dedication of our 75,000 colleagues up and down the UK, including those at Durham University. We do not set immigration policy, however, we are committed to ensuring those in our care are treated with dignity and respect. We are an award winning business for our employee benefits, approach to diversity and inclusion, and environmental commitments.”

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