Antony Loewenstein: Detention centres outsource cruelty

October 1, 2010
Solidarity protest out side Villawood refugee detention centre, Sydney, September 21.

During recent protests in Villawood Detention Centre that followed the September 20 suicide of detained Fijian exile Josefa Rauluni, detainees who tried to help rooftop protesters with water and blankets were stopped by security. One man was bashed.

Hunger strikers were kept quiet in order to avoid publicity. The 12-day hunger strike by 16 Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers in Villawood was called off on September 29. In a major concession, immigration officers told the hunger strikers that their cases would be reviewed and that they would have a definite answer to their claims within three months.

Many of the men, who were not even taking water, remain in a critical condition.

A group of 40 people from the Fijian community were denied entry to the detention centre to hold a memorial service for Josefa. Instead, they held a protest memorial outside the gates.

These events have highlighted the problems with mandatory detention, as well as the role of Serco, the private contractor that manages Australia's detention centres. Green Left Weekly’s Aaron Roden interviewed Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author, who is working on a book about privatisation.

What can you tell us about Serco?

Serco have tentacles all over the world, in the US, UK and Australia. They run a lot of the British detention centres, including the notorious Yarlwood. There have been numerous reports from government, media and human rights abuse groups, detailing the kinds of abuse that goes on, particularly with children.

They also have a lot of work with the US government and military and the National Security Agency (NSA). They run a lot of things and yet they also are very much under the radar. I think the average person wouldn't know they exist, who they are, what they do.

In Australia, they run all these detention centres. And they run a number of private prisons.

Of course, the detention centre question here is increasingly relevant, not just because of the human rights abuses that occur, but because the Australian government is expanding them. We know they're expanding Curtin, they're building a centre of sorts in Cape York.

Whenever you read about these happenings, and it's been talked about in the media in the last few months, you don't read about is actually who's running these places — it's run by Serco. The company is run by a Pentecostal Christian, Christopher Hyman.

He's made a number of comments over the years about "doing God's work", so you can't help but think about his Christian philosophy. Not unlike how Erik Prince, the head of 9military contractor company] Blackwater, talks about his organisation, which is somehow doing God's work on Earth.

The role of companies like Serco and the idea of governments outsourcing human life to essentially unaccountable multinationals should concern us.

You talked to the immigration department, and they said Serco had a contractual agreement where they would only speak publicly on a "fairly substantial issue". Recent events at Villawood have included a suicide, rooftop protests and hunger strikes — would you describe this as a "substantial issue" that Serco should respond to?

Well, personally, absolutely yes. But, apparently, contractually no. The problem we have with this is the contract between the Labor government and Serco has not been fully released — so called commercial confidence.

Whenever you read about something going wrong in a detention centre, you rarely if ever hear Serco's spokesperson say anything. It's always taken by the immigration department, which is clearly what the contract states. There is a desire from Serco to not have to be in the public gaze.

And the only example that was given was a few weeks ago, Serco supposedly needed to respond, according to the immigration department, when it was revealed Serco was bringing in a number of foreign staff because they were overwhelmed with the amount of work they needed to do in detention centres here. Serco did make a very brief comment about that, but very, very brief.

I think it's a fundamental problem that, when you outsource detention centres or prisons or human life, essentially, you need to be able to as a society, as individuals, as journalists, as the detainees themselves, as parliament for that matter, in a truly democratic system … there needs to be accountability with individuals and companies who are managing these people.

At the moment, I would argue there's very little. Serco says: “We can't comment, speak to the immigration department”, and the department makes a very bland statement and then says speak to Serco.

In other words, it's a circular situation here. I think the real concern of that relationship is that there needs to be far greater scrutiny of the relationship between the government and Serco.

Also, now the government is asking Serco to expand a lot of these centres, that can probably only increase in the coming years, as Australia makes the definite choice to maintain mandatory detention and not actually manage refugees in a humane way. That means Serco can make more money. The contract that was signed came to about $400 million.

In all likelihood, now Serco is required to do more, they're going to be paid more. And yet, we don't know exactly how much, we don't know where that money's coming from, we don't know anything about it.

[There are] reports from within these centres themselves about some of the mistreatment in there. I'm not suggesting that every person who works for Serco is an evil person, I don't think that for a second. The system under which a lot of these individuals work fundamentally lacks transparency.

And this happened under the Howard years when ACM managed detention centres. It's been on the record for a while now: massive abuses went on then.

The system was often set up in such a way that problems were deliberately allowed to fester so that the company at the time could go to the government demanding [more] money to manage the problems that they'd allowed to happen in the first place. That's what's happening again now, and there's no reason why it wouldn't in a way, because there's nothing stopping it.

You said the government is outsourcing services. Would you say the government is also trying to outsource responsibility?

Absolutely. The government in some ways doesn't want to manage this problem — and it doesn't make a difference whether it's Labor or Liberal in power. And you could argue the immigration department has developed in such a way since the ’90s (when the Howard government privatised this system) that they are actually incapable of managing it right now.

The truth is whenever the government speaks about these issues … whenever they talk about immigration detention, Serco never gets talked about. It's absent, and that's deliberate. It's very, very deliberate.

The immigration department is very happy to palm off responsibility. Then even if something goes wrong, in the contract it allows them to then fine Serco for those problems.

So, the relationship essentially is that the government doesn't have to worry about the problem. Serco then pays them the minimal fine, and the government continues relying on Serco in expanding their responsibilities. This is what's happening at the moment, without any checks and balances.

Of course the immigration minister and department do go before parliament to answer questions. Serco, of course, doesn't have to appear. They're a private organisation.

So, in the so-called democratic parliament, again, the company actually running these places, gets off scot free and the government I think is very happy about that.

If these things happened in government run facilities, there might be calls for an inquiry. Do you see that happening with Serco's privately managed detention?

In the short term, I think there will absolutely not be an investigation. I don't see any move towards it. I don't see any media pressure for it. And one of the things I talk about is, the media here is culpable too.

In so many of the media reports regarding detention, Serco doesn't get mentioned. They might get mentioned in passing at best.

There was that Sydney Morning Herald article about Serco [on September 24], but it didn't say anything new. The average person might not have known about Serco, I guess that was doing a public service, so to speak, to let people know, but there was no investigation.

There was no real discussion or analysis or pressure on Serco, the response was: we asked Serco questions, there was no comment, end of story. Well, that's not good enough.

So, there definitely should be an investigation, there should be some inquiry. But there won't be.

For example, there have been numerous inquiries, from government and from human rights groups, and they found Serco in breach of numerous human rights regulations.

Yet nothing changes. The government still relies on Serco and abuses still occur in detention centres. So, having inquiries doesn't necessarily solve the problem.

It's an ideological fundamentalism, a belief by government across both political divides, and indeed many in the media, that privatising and outsourcing is the new wonderful god, and we should bow down before that god, and everything becomes far more efficient and cheaper. It's complete bollocks, of course, and there's numerous examples.

There's evidence that suggests that when you have people's lives at stake and someone like Serco is running detention centres like prisons, because that's essentially what they've become, then unsurprisingly, abuses occur.

Do you think the refugee rights movement should concentrate more on the issue of private contractors managing detention? Does that detract from the main issue of mandatory detention?

I certainly think they should. I don't see why the refugee rights community can't do both. I've spoken to a number of these groups over the last month and will continue to do so.

More often they seem disturbed over the role of Serco and others, but for some reason I can't claim to know, they haven't pushed this as much. I would argue they should.

I think this is an important issue [for a number of reasons]. First, it affects the conditions of the people [the refugee rights movement are] campaigning for. Second, Serco operates worldwide, so [activists] can connect it to abuses in Britain and elsewhere.

Third, there's no accountability. Fourth, there's no media coverage at all, and in the current situation it's something that would get coverage.

For example, in the Howard years, [there was] evidence of abuses committed by detention staff. There's lots of evidence for that. And it's an increasing problem, with the growing number of Australian prisons being outsourced to Serco and other private operators

So, I would encourage refugee groups to focus, not to the exclusion of everything else, but to equally focus on Serco, because they are often as responsible for these abuses as the government.

In conclusion?

Again it goes back to the bigger picture issues. It's the increasing outsourcing and privatisation of numerous elements in life. Prisons, detention centres, military outsourcing, numerous areas.

It's not just about detention centres, and of course, for many in the media and the political elite, privatisation is a good thing and should be encouraged, it should be accelerated in fact.

Whereas some journalists may well be sceptical about it, many newspapers — in fact most of the mainstream press in Australia — celebrate privatisation. They see it as a good thing, they celebrate it.

As the powers that be in the media are supportive of that kind of ideology … then it's difficult to get them to examine, in a deeper sense, [the current] shift in society from the public to the private space.

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