The dirty business of detaining refugees


Refugees at the Manus Island detention center in a 2017 file photo. IMAGE/Youtube

The private contract security industry does many things well, including providing armed guards and other security services in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. But when the industry moves into running detention facilities, controversy often follows.

The most egregious example for many years running now is in Australia, which has relied largely on private contractors to implement its policy of holding asylum seekers, refugees and migrants on offshore facilities in Narau, Christmas Island and, most notoriously, Manus Island.

Manus Island’s facility is a sort of mashup of France’s Devil Island and the United States’ Alcatraz Island, a combined unescapable penal colony for non-criminal immigrants who have often traveled great and dangerous distances to seek refuge in Australia.

Australia’s history of offshore processing dates back to the 1960s, when Manus Island was first set up to take refugees from West Papua. But it was then prime minister Paul Keating who first introduced the concept of mandatory detention for those deemed as “unlawful arrivals” in 1992.

Although the policy started and stopped for many years thereafter, in 2012 then prime minister Julia Gillard announced the government would resume offshore processing. Over the years, the system has produced a long list of human rights abuses, ranging from arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, physical and sexual assault, systematic neglect, inadequate medical care and even child abuse.

Manus Island has arguably been the most notorious facility in that system. The so-called Manus Regional Processing Center, situated on Los Negros Island in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, opened in October 2001 and officially closed on October 31, 2017, although hundreds of detainees who claimed to fear for their safety refused to leave.

In November 2017 all detainees were moved, hundreds by force, to new accommodation at the same island’s East Lorengau Refugee Transit Center after basic services including water and electricity were shut down at Manus.

Problems at Manus have been so longstanding and pervasive that just about every company that won a contract to run the facility has been visited by scandal.

The most recent contractor is Australian-based company Paladin, which became the subject of intense public scrutiny beginning in February this year thanks to a series of expose articles in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) newspaper.

The investigative articles’ bottom line was that the Australian government awarded an A$109 million (US$77.5 million) contract extension to the then virtually unknown Paladin to provide security for refugees at Manus Island, despite allegations of suspicious payments, a corrupt tender process and deceptive conduct highlighted in the AFR’s reporting. Paladin, however, issued a statement on Feb. 21 contesting the claims made by the AFR.

In the latest abusive turn, one of Paladin’s workers was arrested and charged on April 5 with sexual assault against one of his co-workers on Manus Island, according to news reports. The provincial police commander, David Yapu, says Paladin management took no action when the employee first reported the assault. Paladin disputes this and says it has been in contact with Yapu and is cooperating with the investigation.

The accused was sacked by the Australia-run detention center’s former contractor, G4S, in 2014 for mistreating asylum seekers.

As management contracts have been passed from one contractor to another over the years, the persistent corruption and abuses have illustrated the flaws of pro-outsourcing arguments, often based on supposed private sector cost-effectiveness and efficiencies. The examples of private contractor abuse are myriad.

In 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald found that the detention center’s then operator G4S could put an asylum seeker up at Sydney’s Sheraton on the Park for less than it charged the government for an evening at Manus Island.

Later, in November 2015, it was reported that Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection suffered a A$100 million ($71 million) blowout in the cost of detaining asylum seekers offshore.

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