Shine A Light

Lessons from Australia: talking about privatised immigration detention

Do detention companies deliberately escalate tensions so they can extract more money from governments? Bart Denaro, Antony Loewenstein, Ramesh Fernandez and Brynn O'Brien shine a light on a thriving trade in human misery.

Bart Denaro
2 June 2014
  • gallery-art-1.jpg_0.png
    'Bound', coffee on paper, by Alwy
  • What happens when immigration detention is handed to commercial contractors? In Australia, as in Britain, locking up migrants is good business. For Sydney's FBi community radio station, Bart Denaro (musician, writer and broadcaster) interviews:
  • journalist and filmmaker Antony Loewenstein, whose latest book — Profits of Doom, How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world — investigates the largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, resource wars and militarised private security;
  • Ramesh Fernandez, refugee, writer, ex-detainee and CEO of Rise, the first asylum seeker advocacy organisation in Australia run exclusively by asylum seekers and ex-detainees, and 
  • Brynn O'Brien, a lawyer who researches the supply and investment chains of human rights abuse.

  • Antony Loewenstein: One of the things that many Australians aren’t aware of, and this has been going on now for well over a decade is the fact that our detention centres both onshore and offshore are run by private corporations.

Because these companies are running these centres with the most vulnerable people imaginable, their aim is to turn a profit, which is what capitalism is, but they’re often doing that at the expense of people’s rights — both the staff and also the detainees themselves. So training is incredibly poor, mental health is incredibly poor of the staff who work there as well as the detainees

Bart Denaro: Before we get into the implications of all this wonderful capitalism, let’s start at the why. Why have successive governments been so keen to outsource?

Loewenstein: I think it’s two-fold, there’s one ideological and one practical. Ideological is in the last thirty or so years, which pretty much started in the US and the UK under president Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, where there was a belief that key services that used to be run by the state should be outsourced to private corporations. The argument behind that at the time was that it made it far more efficient and cheaper.


Antony Loewenstein (Reuben Brand)In Australia I think a decision was made many years ago to outsource detention centres because it made the government in its own mind less responsible for what happened inside those centres. When something goes wrong, or there’s a riot, the government blames the service provider — the private company — and the private company blames the government. This is a perfect arrangement.

What you see in theory is a great deal of accountability, checks and balances. In practice these are rarely enforced.

Denaro: In 2005, Labor Opposition Spokesman for Immigration Tony Burke said this about Howard’s policy of outsourcing immigration detention to the private sector. Here's Burke:

"There’s been undue emphasis on containment and not enough concern about care. You can only get those clear lines of responsibility if you have government-run centres. You shouldn’t have a situation where the level of supervision and the standard of care has anything to do with the private profits of an offshore company."

DenaroWhat followed was six years of continued privatised detention under Labor, then in the first few torrid months of Coalition rule, we saw the tragic death of Reza Barati, a detainee on Manus Island [in Papua New Guinea, home to an Australian government facility run by G4S; the contract was handed to Transfield in February 2014]. And according to Antony, the opposition has been underwhelming.


Reza Barati, killed at G4S-run Manus Island detention centre, February 2014

Loewenstein: The Labor Party’s response wasn’t to show outrage about the policy, it was to say very clearly, Richard Marles who is the Immigration spokesperson - we’re proud of the policy, we’re proud of PNG, we’re proud of Manus Island what we set up under our watch. We’re disappointed that the Liberal government has not managed it properly.

That’s the opposition in this country. It doesn’t really matter who’s in charge in Canberra, they will throw any amount of money to make sure the system remains privatised and incredibly secret, and if you keep journalists out of the picture you don’t make it very easy through freedom of information to get information.

And let’s not forget — when it’s a private corporation FOI is irrelevant, they’re not public organisations. So to get detailed information about how much money they’re making, why they’re making the money, how this is working, the only way that’s going to happen really, because you’re not going to get that from an official spokesperson, are through leaks.


Ramesh FernandezRamesh Fernandez: While we were in detention we made many requests to meet the media. So when we request to meet the media from the people who are running the private corporates, they say like, oh we are not authorised to do that by the department of immigration. And then when we request from the department of immigration: Oh it’s not up to us that responsibility is to the people who are managing.   

Denaro: Am I the only one noticing a trend developing here? And what about those Reaganomic claims of privatised efficiency? When Kevin Rudd awarded Serco the contract to run Australia’s detention centres in 2009, it was worth about 370 million. But as the boat arrivals began to surge the system couldn’t handle it, and within 3 years, the contract had blown out to over 1 billion dollars. Yes more refugees equal more costs, but a billion dollars seems like a lot to pay for a bunch of squalid hell-holes.

Loewenstein: Now the reason that’s happening is that the company is saying to the government all these people are coming, we need to manage these people we need to house them feed them, and the problem was that on Christmas Island for example, the centre that was set up and I’ve visited there, was basically a high security prison.

Senior managers are telling managers at detention centres themselves, do not report breaches which happen all the time because if you report them you’re going to get in trouble and we’re going to get fined by the government. If the government themselves who are the ones who are supposed to be managing the contract don’t actually enforce it, then ultimately there’s kind of a culture in there of impunity.

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G4S lost its Manus Island government contract to Transfield

Denaro: One of Antony’s sources inside Serco told him that both the company and the Immigration Department were in chaos, unable to handle numbers but the corporation continued reducing staff to bolster their profit margins. With governments more interested in maintaining deniability than enforcing humanitarian standards, that a corporate culture of underreporting and cost-cutting has developed is hardly surprising. But that ain’t the half of it.

Loewenstein: I had internal documents and actually, he wasn’t a former Serco manager he’s actually a current Serco manager, who is saying that the corporation is deliberately exaggerating the amount of money they need, the government is seemingly happy to do so and I give the example in the book of companies deliberately allowing situations to get out of control.

Denaro: That’s deliberately allowing situations to get out of control.

Loewenstein: The reason they’re doing that, and it’s not a conspiracy theory, it was said by a senior manager themselves, that this is happening because the corporation goes to the government and says we need more money, we need more support, we need somehow to manage this problem that you, in your view, have created.

Denaro: It’s all pretty hard to verify, precisely because information is so tightly controlled. This is a confidential source of Antony’s, but conspiracy theory or not a situation in which dangerous incidents may be providing justification for companies to request more money is one worth examining.

Not only does letting things get out of hand lead to more government money in the direct way that Antony describes, it also serves to slow down the processing of asylum seekers claims, keeping the centres fuller for longer. Fuller of freshly traumatised detainees and staff, making fresh incidents more likely. Yep, stalling by any means available is the name of the game, because the last thing these corporations want is an empty centre.

Fernandez: They don’t wanna let it go, the people who run these camps they don’t wanna close it down. While I was in detention centres and when there is a need, a medical need or any sort of welfare need, when I go and ask security guard and they say, oh no we not authorised to do that because the government are not letting you to take such services, and then when I question the immigration they say like, oh it's not from us it’s the people who are running the detention centres. So it’s just like we become the football which gets kicked from both ends.

The people who have medical health issues they get transferred to mainland and they will be kept for a while until they get a little bit better and they will be sent back to the offshore and once they get back to the offshore after a while they will have the same problem and a few months later they fly back to mainland and then after that a few months later they get sent back to Christmas Island or any other offshore detention centres. So it’s just like the devil’s game between government and the private entities who are running the detention centres.

Denaro: The most seductive aspect of this arrangement for both government and the corporations seems to be the fact that responsibility can remain forever unassigned. The government blames the corporation for riots and deaths and the corporation blames the government for under-resourcing, and in the meantime the whole process blows out. But where does responsibility actually lie? Can we really blame the corporation given that the government is creating the market and the conditions that permit such corporate behaviour? Isn’t this just companies doing what companies do?


Brynn O’BrienBrynn O’Brien: The point that I will reiterate is that this is not a regular commercial contract. We have dual types of responsibility in this situation. We have the Australian Government which is responsible primarily for the policy and the decision to offshore and detain people but we also have corporations that are, to be quite brutally frank about it, profiting off massive, systematic human rights abuse. So this is a shared responsibility. Businesses have obligations to respect human rights in their business activity that is independent of any actions of national government.  

Denaro: These obligations derive from international and transnational law, specifically from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. A quick flick through these documents makes me wonder if these companies have even heard about international law, but more importantly: has international law heard about these companies, and if so what the hell is it waiting for?

O’Brien: The difficulty always in transnational and international law is in enforcement. It is difficult to enforce claims of human rights violations against business. There are some complaints mechanisms that exist but it is difficult to hold corporations to account in a hard way.

Denaro: When both sides of politics are getting off on outsourcing detention, and there’s effectively no way to hold anyone legally accountable for anything, what options are left for the dissenting individuals who have lost political agency? Sometimes a market based problem calls for a market based solution.

O’Brien: The value chain on mandatory detention in Australia is quite massive. If superannuation money for example is divested from Transfield Services then we may start to see corporations acknowledging that mandatory detention isn’t a good investment for them. That is where Australians who oppose detention can exert market power. They could move their super from a fund that invests in Transfield for example to a fund that doesn't, and then the range of partners that the government will have to implement this abuse will decrease. There will be fewer companies that are happy to have their share price and their reputation dragged through this policy of abuse.

Denaro: Despite being labelled by some as a tantrum, the campaign of divestment is gaining momentum, with the Biennale of Sydney cutting ties with Transfield after being petitioned by a group of artists and activists to do so.

Also, the Australian Services Union recently adopted resolution calling for industry superfund Hesta to divest from Transfield and advised its 20,000 members on how to stop their super being invested with Transfield Services

The paradox at the heart of privatised detention is that the government’s policy goal of processing claims and getting these centres emptied runs directly counter to the corporations profit motive. The market conditions created by the govt say: more detainees equals more money, more catastrophic incidents equals more money and fewer reported breached equals fewer fines equals more money.

It’s a noxious mix of secrecy, bipartisanship, responsibility dodging and toothless international law that is keeping these centres open and generating mega-profits. But with super divestment as a first step, it may be these mega-profits that offer those who disagree the chance to make their voices heard. If not as citizens, then as consumers. 


This is an edited transcript of Bart Denaro's FBi Backchat feature on privatised immigration detention

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