Doing business at the border: abuse, complicity and legality

As abuses in Australia’s detention centres become increasingly stark, there are growing calls for the boycott of a global system of inhumane, but profitable, mistreatment of refugees.

Katie Hepworth
6 May 2016
8 Christian leaders face Perth Court. Photo_ Louise Coghill_1.jpg

Christian leaders outside Perth Court, Australia. Photo: Louise Coghill

On 22 March, the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they would be withdrawing from refugee ‘hotspots’ in Greece. Their announcement followed the signing of a deal between the European Union and Turkey to return asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey. Explaining their decision, the MSF head of mission in Greece stated that to continue to operate in these sites would make MSF ‘complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane … [W]e refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants’.

Their decision raises questions about the role of organisations, as well as individuals, working at the border. It compels us to consider: when does care become complicity in human rights abuses? And what is the responsibility of organisations and individuals to refuse to cooperate in abusive, but legal, systems?

These debates resonate equally on the other side of the world in Australia, where there has been an upsurge in resistance to the policy of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Despite repeated condemnation from human rights organisations, this policy has had political support from both major Australian political parties for over 20 years. With the practice becoming ever more severe, punitive and ultimately abusive, many are now arguing that the only way to end the detention regime is to refuse to participate.

A pioneer of detention

Australia, the UK and Canada are the only countries in the world that have a policy of imposing mandatory and indefinite detention on asylum seekers as the first course of action. All asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat without a valid visa are detained, with no limit imposed on how long they can be held. Australia operates a system of ‘onshore’ centres within its borders, alongside an ‘offshore’ system of detention facilities located in the Pacific Island states of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru. Initially established in 2001 and then shut down in 2008, the centres were again opened in August 2012 under the then Labour government of Julia Gillard. The men, women, children and babies currently detained in these facilities have been told they will never be resettled in Australia.

A Perth vigil for murdered asylum seeker Reza Barati - Anthony Georgeff Flickr.jpg

23 year old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, killed in Manus Island detention centre. Photo: Anthony Georgeff/Flickr

Investigating the offshore centres in March, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture found that the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers held on Nauru and Manus amounted to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Successive inquiries have likewise documented widespread sexual abuse and even rape of detainees, and have identified incidents of violent behavior toward detainees by both expat and local staff at the centres. In February 2014, the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed during riots in the Manus Island detention centre. Two staff members were eventually charged with his murder, but detainees have lamented that others involved in his killing continue to be employed at the centre. All in all, evidence repeatedly reveals horrifying abuses as well as severe mental and physical harm inflicted on those detained by Australia’s system.

Manus_Island_regional_processing_facility_2012 Wikimedia Commons (800x533).jpg

Manus Island immigration detention centre. Photo: wikimedia

Most recently, the detention centre on Manus Island was ruled illegal under PNG law, with the PNG Supreme Court finding it breached the right to personal liberty in the Papua New Guinea constitution.

Care as complicity in torture?

In his provocatively-titled journal article, ‘Are healthcare professionals working in Australia's immigration detention centres condoning torture?’, pediatrician David Isaacs last year considered whether doctors can ever provide proper medical care within Australian detention centres. Isaacs was spurred to write after his experience visiting detainees on Nauru, where he met a 6-year-old girl who had tried to hang herself with fence ties, and heard extensive stories of sexual and physical abuse of women and children. For Isaacs, it is detention itself – as well as the physical conditions within Australia’s on and offshore centres – that is detrimental to the mental and physical health of asylum seekers, and which thereby constitutes torture. Under these conditions, he argues, the participation of doctors in the system can only ever provide the illusion of care, while ultimately allowing for the continuation of an abusive model.

Rohinga refugees support doctors refusing to discharge baby Asha into detention @brynnobrien.jpg

Rohingya refugees in Australia support doctors refusing to discharge baby Asha into detention. Photo: Brynn O’Brian

Dr John-Paul Sanggaran, who worked in the Christmas Island detention centre in late 2013, echoes Isaacs’ calls for a boycott by health professionals. As he argues, ‘doctors contribute to ongoing human rights abuses by being part of immigration detention, lending it legitimacy and respectability in the process. Continuing to work in these settings facilitates the perpetuation of human rights abuses.’

The campaign for doctors to boycott all detention centres is likewise supported by Rise Refugees, the first and only refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organisation in Australia that is entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees.

Is abuse legitimate business?

The operation and management of Australian detention centres has long been outsourced to private companies. The onshore system is currently managed by Serco, while the offshore system has been under the management of Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield) since 2012. A number of other companies and organizations are also contracted to provide services to the centres.

The commercial outsourcing of detention services means that the decision to refuse to participate in this inhumane system is not limited to individuals and organisations who are directly employed therein. Rather, opportunities for refusal exist along the entire supply chain, and can be mobilized through corporate campaigns that allow anyone to put pressure on companies involved in, and reaping profits from, detention.

The most visible of these campaigns in the Australian context is ‘No Business in Abuse’ (NBIA), which targets companies capitalizing on detention in order to force them ‘to choose between Australia’s abusive detention regime and a profitable business model’. It deems profiting companies and organisations responsible for the harms committed by arbitrary and indefinite detention, as they ‘knowingly provid[e] practical assistance or encouragement that has a substantial effect on the commission of the abuse’.

Chief among these is Broadspectrum, which currently holds the contract to manage the offshore centres and has formed the focus of the campaign. NBIA has met with investors, including superannuation funds, to inform them of the risks entailed by the company’s involvement in human rights abuses. In response, Broadspectrum has repeatedly stated that they are ‘providing services within a lawful contract and as an essential services provider, the most unprofessional thing we could do would be to walk away from a contract that we have struck with a client’. However, the lawfulness of the contract has been called into question with the PNG Supreme Court’s finding in April that the detention centres breach the constitutional right to personal liberty and are therefore illegal under PNG law. In response to the ruling, the PNG government has announced that the Manus Island centre will close, with refugee advocates stepping up the call to bring everyone detained there to Australia. Despite this, the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull continues to refute that anyone on Manus will ever be settled on Australian shores.

Even prior to PNG’s ruling, many disputed Broadspectrum’s argument – among them, former child detainee on Nauru, Mohammed Al Baquiri. As he explains, ‘Broadspectrum claims it is running a legitimate business in compliance with the laws of PNG, Nauru and Australia. But you don’t need to be a law or business student to know that’s absurd. Abuse is simply illegitimate business.’

Irrespective of the new legal findings, the precedents under international law are already clear: state authorization does not provide an alibi for doing business in human rights abuses. And it seems that many investors, as well as current and prospective clients of Broadspectrum and other detention providers, agree. Since the NBIA campaign was established, a number of superannuation firms including the major shareholder HESTA, have divested from Broadspectrum. Meanwhile, successive local councils have introduced policies to exclude companies involved in detention from their procurement policies, and a campaign wages on by academics, students and community members to have an Australian university cancel its contract with Broadspectrum.

The Spanish company Ferrovial recently staged a successful takeover of Broadspectrum. However, in the face of the growing campaign to stop companies profiting from abuse, it has announced that the detention centre contracts will not form a part of their future business. NBIA has called on the company to commit to ending their involvement in detention immediately. With two refugees on Nauru self-immolating in a single week this month, and the UNHCR condemning the situation on Nauru and Manus as untenable, it is evermore patent that human rights abuses are not legitimate business. Now is the time for Ferrovial to join other organisations refusing to do business in human rights abuses perpetrated at the border.

Read more articles: People on the Move: Beyond Borders

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