Australia’s immigration detention abused by Serco and government

This is what Australia currently faces; a system for asylum seekers that simply can’t cope with the inevitable anger, fear and prolonged detention of those fleeing persecution. Mental trauma is rife. British multinational Serco are unwilling to spend the required funds to service human beings but the fault largely lies with the federal government. Privatised care almost guarantees abuses.

The following article by Paige Taylor appears in today’s Australian:

Guards have for months feared for their safety at Villawood, the centre that workplace safety watchdog Comcare considered “a basket case” in the days before up to 100 detainees ran riot, lighting fires that gutted nine buildings.

The Immigration Department has been in dispute with Comcare for the past fortnight over safety and other standards at the centre, and the watchdog has ordered improvements in relation to staffing and risk assessment.

Comcare has visited seven detention centres in the past fortnight, including Christmas Island, as part of an investigation that left some senior investigators shocked.

The Weekend Australian has been told investigators and other staff at Comcare privately described Villawood as “a basket case”.

They were appalled by what they found, including risk assessment processes that they believed left Villawood, its guards and some detainees vulnerable.

Staffing levels at Villawood left guards “massively outnumbered by a volatile detainee population”, according to author and activist Antony Loewenstein, who has recently interviewed dozens of detention centre guards as research for a book about privatisation.

“The system in some ways is brutalising refugees and the staff members,” he said.

“In talking to the guards at Villawood, I was struck by the way in which they have been fearful of the refugees.”

Mr Loewenstein said guards also spoke freely to him about their belief that they had not been given enough training for the sometimes dangerous work they did.

Last week, just days before rooftop protests at Villawood, Comcare issued the Immigration Department with a lengthy improvement notice asserting that a guard in charge of Villawood’s high-security unit was not trained for the job.

The unit holds boatpeople from Christmas Island alleged to have been ringleaders of riots on March 17, as well as non-citizens convicted of crimes who are awaiting deportation.

But the department denies the guard running the high-security unit was unqualified.

Training and staffing levels are the responsibility of the Immigration Department contractor Serco, which was heavily criticised in the wake of the Christmas Island riots for understaffing compounds.

Serco defended itself at the time by pointing to the island’s chronic accommodation shortage.

Even if the company had been able to recruit large numbers of extra workers, there was nowhere for them to stay.

Mr Loewenstein, who has been highly critical of Serco on his blog, said there was sentiment at the highest levels of the company that it was being blamed for problems that were actually caused by the blowout in detainee numbers.

“Governments contract out services that they cannot do or do not want to do . . . it is far easier for a government to blame a private company than to blame itself,” he said.

When Serco signed a five-year contract to run Australia’s immigration detention centres in 2009, there were about 600 detainees. Now there are more than 6000.

The company’s original contract for detention centres was valued at $340 million. The latest adjustment, in November last year, puts the value of the contract at $712 million.

More adjustments are likely.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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