This feature in the New York Times yesterday is devastating; a thorough examination of the realities in Australia, America and Britain of using unaccountably thuggish firms, such as Serco, to imprison asylum seekers while governments get “tough” for a public allegedly baying for blood and secure borders.
It’s all a sham, of course, with no threats to territorial integrity but gee, isn’t it fun to attack the most vulnerable in society? Private companies will always be happy to fill the breach and make a killing in the process:
The men showed up in a small town in Australia’s outback early last year, offering top dollar for all available lodgings. Within days, their company, Serco, was flying in recruits from as far away as London, and busing them from trailers to work 12-hour shifts as guards in a remote camp where immigrants seeking asylum are indefinitely detained.
It was just a small part of a pattern on three continents where a handful of multinational security companies have been turning crackdowns on immigration into a growing global industry.
Especially in Britain, the United States and Australia, governments of different stripes have increasingly looked to such companies to expand detention and show voters they are enforcing tougher immigration laws.
Some of the companies are huge — one is among the largest private employers in the world — and they say they are meeting demand faster and less expensively than the public sector could.
But the ballooning of privatized detention has been accompanied by scathing inspection reports, lawsuits and the documentation of widespread abuse and neglect, sometimes lethal. Human rights groups say detention has neither worked as a deterrent nor speeded deportation, as governments contend, and some worry about the creation of a “detention-industrial complex” with a momentum of its own.
“They’re very good at the glossy brochure,” said Kaye Bernard, general secretary of the union of detention workers on the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where riots erupted this year between asylum seekers and guards. “On the ground, it’s almost laughable, the chaos and the inability to function.”
No country has more completely outsourced immigration enforcement, with more troubled results, than Australia. Under unusually severe mandatory detention laws, the system has been run by a succession of three publicly traded companies since 1998. All three are now major players in the international business of locking up and transporting unwanted foreigners.
The first, the Florida-based prison company GEO Group, lost its Australia contract in 2003 amid a commission’s findings that detained children were subjected to cruel treatment. An Australian government audit reported that the contract had not delivered “value-for-money.” In the United States, GEO controls 7,000 of 32,000 detention beds.
The second company, G4S, an Anglo-Danish security conglomerate with more than 600,000 employees in 125 countries, was faulted for lethal neglect and abusive use of solitary confinement in Australia. By the middle of the past decade, after refugee children had sewed their lips together during hunger strikes in camps like Woomera and Curtin, and government commissions discovered that Australian citizens and legal residents were being wrongly detained and deported, protests pushed the Liberal Party government to dismantle some aspects of the system.
But after promising to return the work to the public sector, a Labor government awarded a five-year, $370 million contract to Serco in 2009. The value of the contract has since soared beyond $756 million as detention sites quadrupled, to 24, and the number of detainees ballooned to 6,700 from 1,000.
The camp that Serco took over in the Australian outback, the Curtin Immigration Detention Center, had also been shut down amid riots and hunger strikes in 2002. But it was reopened last year to handle a surge of asylum seekers arriving by boat even as the government imposed a moratorium on processing their claims. Refurbished for 300 men, the camp sits on an old air force base and held more than 1,500 detainees in huts and tents behind an electrified fence. Serco guards likened the compound to a free-range chicken farm.
On March 28, a 19-year-old Afghan from a group persecuted by the Taliban hanged himself after 10 months’ detention — the system’s fifth suicide in seven months. A dozen guards, short of sleep and training, found themselves battling hundreds of grieving, angry detainees for the teenager’s body.
“We have lost control,” said Richard Harding, who served for a decade as Western Australia’s chief prison inspector. He is no enemy of privatization, and his praise for a Serco-run prison is posted on the company’s Web site. But he said Curtin today was emblematic of “a flawed arrangement that’s going to go wrong no matter who’s running it.”
“These big global companies, in relation to specific activities, are more powerful than the governments they’re dealing with,” he added.