Australia’s refugee policies are designed to inflict harm on the most vulnerable. Last week I was interviewed by Turkish international news channel TRT World in Berlin about the issue (my interview starts at 19:54):
My column in the Guardian:
Australia first introduced onshore detention facilities in 1991 at Villawood in Sydney and Port Hedland in Western Australia. Mandatory detention came in 1992. Bob Hawke’s government announced it was because “Australia could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.
More than 20 years later, the rhetoric has only worsened against the most vulnerable arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Policies that years ago seemed unimaginable, such as imprisoning refugees on remote Pacific islands, are the norm and blessed with bipartisan support.
The sad reality is Australia’s refugee policies are envied and copied around the world, especially in Europe, now struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Walls and fences are being built across the continent in futile attempts to keep out the unwanted. A privatised security apparatus is working to complement the real agenda. Australia is an island but it has long implemented remote detention camps with high fences and isolation for its inhabitants.
As a journalist and activist who has publicly campaigned against Canberra’s asylum policies for over a decade, this brutal reality is a bitter pill. In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.
When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.
Consider the facts in Europe: after Sweden and Denmark reintroduced border controls, a borderless continent is now in serious jeopardy. The Schengen agreement – introduced in 1985 to support free movement between EEC countries – is on the verge of collapse. In early January, the European Union admitted it had relocated just 0.17% of the refugees it pledged to help four months earlier. In 2015 more than 1 million people arrived by boat in Europe.
This mirrors Australia’s lacklustre efforts to resettle refugees in its onshore detention camps. Figures released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in December found that asylum seekers had spent an average of 445 days behind barbed wire. In both Australia and Europe there’s general acceptance of these situations because those seeking asylum have been so successfully demonised as potential terrorists, suspiciously Muslim and threatening a comfortably western way of life.
Germany, a nation that took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015 despite being unprepared for the large numbers, is now facing a public backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance, leading to fear and rising far-right support. Australia has taken far fewer people with little social unrest and yet still unleashed over two decades a highly successful, though dishonest, campaign to stigmatise boat arrivals. The result is the ability of successive Australian governments to create an environment where sexual abuse against refugees is tolerated and covered up. A politician is unlikely to lose his job over it.
Europe and Australia promote themselves as regions of openness. It’s an illusion when it comes to refugee policy. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, despite his bombastic and discriminatory attitude towards refugees and Jews, is increasingly viewed across Europe as providing necessary warnings of the continent’s struggles. EU officials in Brussels told the New York Times that Orban was often right but wished he hadn’t couched his comments in conspiracy theories. Too few in Hungary are publicly resisting this wave of racism.
“Whenever Hungary made an argument the response was always: ‘They are stupid Hungarians. They are xenophobes and Nazis,’” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, told the Times. “Suddenly, it turns out that what we said was true. The naivete of Europe is really quite stunning.”
Brussels has proposed an Australian-style border force to monitor the EU’s borders and deport asylum seekers. Germany and France support the move. This proves that the most powerful nations have little interest in resolving the reasons so many people are streaming into Europe (such as war and climate change) and prefer to pull up the drawbridge. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott encouraged Europe to turn back the refugee boats and it seems Brussels is listening. Europe is also copying Australia’s stance of privatising the detention centres for refugees.
None of this worries Rupert Murdoch’s Australian. In light of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, the paper editorialised in early 2016 that Europe must avoid “reckless idealism” and embrace an “enlightened world” where gender equality is accepted by all. The outlet has not expressed similar outrage with the immigration department’s blatant disregard for refugee lives. It’s also unclear how pushing for military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, pushed by the paper for years, contributes to an “enlightened world”.
It’s comforting to think of Australia as a global pariah on the world stage, pursuing racist policies against asylum seekers from war-torn nations. But it’s untrue. Canberra’s militarised “solution” to refugees is admired in many parts of Europe because it represents an ideology far easier to process and sell than identifying and adapting to changing global migration patterns.
None of this should stop activists fighting for a more just outcome, in both Australia and Europe, but today it’s more likely European officials will ask Australian officials for advice on how to “stop the boats” than chastise it for mistreating a raped refugee.
Australia has become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons.
At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.
Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.
Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”
The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.
In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.
Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.
One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.
After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
During my recent New York book tour for Disaster Capitalism, there was a book event in October at The New School hosted by The Schools of Public Engagement and New School for Social Research. I was in conversation with Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, co-director of the great film on Gaza, Flying Paper, and friend who I met in Cairo in 2010 during the Gaza Freedom March. Thor Neureiter, the director of my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism, also spoke about our project:
My column in the Guardian:
The Australian maintenance, construction and detention centre company Transfield Services officially changed its name last month, to Broadspectrum. The firm claimed it was “a better representation of the company’s business”. Clearly there was an element of necessity too: the corporation’s founding members withdrew permission to use the Transfield name and logo over ongoing allegations of abuse at its facilities on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
A name change isn’t likely to improve its public image, battered by never-ending stories of asylum seekers abused while in limbo.
One of the first rules of public relations is to take heat off a target by attempting to change the focus of controversy. Recall American private security firm Blackwater, embroiled in numerous scandals of employees killing innocent civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, first changing its name to Xe Services, then Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince left the US, moved to Abu Dhabi and today works with Chinese companies that financially benefit from the African resources boom.
In 2014, Academi became a division of Constellis Holdings, along with another private contractor, Triple Canopy. These descendants of Blackwater rake in cash from US government contracts, the years of scandals against its multiple owners and employees seemingly forgotten.
Broadspectrum will be hoping for similar success. Although profits were down 8% this year, a number of key shareholders were publicly opposed to its involvement in detention services. Some protested its recent AGM in Sydney.
The company looks set to continue a billion-dollar contract to run facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. As was the case for Blackwater and its descendents, it’s hard to imagine what would have to transpire for the federal government to sever its contract with the company.
Nonetheless, the growing push for divestment against Broadspectrum is an encouraging sign that companies profiting from offshore misery could suffer serious harm. Shen Narayanasamy, executive director of No Business in Abuse, rightly argues that, “you don’t deal with abuse by changing your name, you deal with abuse by stopping the abuse. No amount of spin changes Transfield’s complicity in abuse. Transfield/Broadspectrum doesn’t have to sign a five-year contract to continue profiting from the abuse of vulnerable people. That’s their decision.”
There’s no reason, apart from corporate Stockholm Syndrome, to defend the actions of Transfield. A recent op-ed by PhD candidate Carly Gordyn, published in SBS Online, made embarrassing excuses for the firm (“The contractors are doing only what they are being asked to do”) and insisted that refugee activists should principally target the government, which implements the detention policy.
Surely a strategy of highlighting official and corporate complicity is the most logical idea. During my years of investigating the role of British multinational Serco, both on the Australian mainland and Christmas Island, leaked internal documents proved that company management was price gouging, under-training staff and instructing regional managers not to report problems to avoid government fines.
And IHMS, the company that provides healthcare for Australia’s asylum seekers in detention, admitted in documents published earlier this year by Guardian Australia that “inevitable” fraud would be committed as it tried to meet government standards.
Of course, one company can be replaced with another with relative ease if the authorities are determined to outsource their responsibilities.
The time is ripe for a vociferous divestment campaign against Serco in Australia for its past and present activities. The firm is having financial troubles and is economically vulnerable to shareholder pressure. Broadspectrum will face a growing public backlash as long as it’s involved in the privatised detention business, although it’s unlikely to collapse from that alone.
Lessons from other states prove that this is only half the battle (for example, European detention firms are making money from the current refugee crisis) and that uncovering the financial and ideological ties that have led to the modern trend of outsourcing asylum seekers to corporations is the far larger and more difficult battle. It means challenging an economic model that places a monetary value on every human being.
After my recent UK and US media tour for Disaster Capitalism, I wrote a post for my publisher Verso:
Antony Loewenstein, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, rounds-up a series of op-eds in response to the ever-worsening global emergency of crisis-profiteering. Loewenstein’s analysis of contemporary news items offers a coherent frame for understanding the source and scope of this ethical catastrophe on a global scale.
Disaster capitalism surrounds us every day, from European firms aiming to make money from the refugee crisis to corporations turning a profit from the man-made crisis rescue business. It’s become so ubiquitous, people turning a profit from misery, that many simply ignore its presence or feel powerless to stop it.
I’ve recently been on a book tour in the US and UK for my new title, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and speaking about the countries that feature in it: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Greece, Britain, America and Australia. These are all nations that either export exploitative policies globally – think of British firm Serco operating detention centres in Australia and unaccountable American contractors in Afghanistan – or abuse the most vulnerable closer to home.
During the recent 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I told Al Jazeera English’s The Stream that opportunists saw a unique opportunity after the disaster to impose unequal education, healthcare and housing options. One decade later, the evidence remains strong that privatizing public services has left African-Americans disadvantaged. And yet there are still defenders, as I explained in Al Jazeera America:
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote in a recent column, referring to the monster storm that nearly wiped out the city of New Orleans in 2005. “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.
“McQueary wished for a storm to wipe away Chicago’s corruption, slash the city’s budget and introduce private education. However, she did not mention how African-Americans in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the disaster or how race became a determining factor in what was rebuilt, how and where.”
The economic system is rigged. In my book I follow the money and explain how companies are able to continually score contracts in the West and the rest even though they consistently fail to deliver (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issues regular reports on wasted and lost US money in the war-torn state). I wrote in Al Jazeera America:
“Since the global economic meltdown in 2008, financial firms such as Bank of America received tens of billions of dollars of government money to save them from collapse while committing vast fraud in the process. Virtually nobody was punished. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, legally obligated to hold these companies to account, didn’t just squib his responsibility, he even returned to corporate law firm Covington & Burling after leaving office earlier this year to work again with corporations on its client list that he failed to prosecute when in office.
“While the financial elite plays with each other’s toys, the American population has rarely been so reliant on state handouts. More than 1 in 5 children need food stamps. The middle class often struggles to pay rent, students are burdened with debt, and Americans, according to studies, have little hope for the future.During my various public events in the US and UK I was often asked how to stop this trend of unaccountable corporate and government power. There’s no simple answer though bringing the voices of those assaulted by outsourced power is an important start. I like the recent call by US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to end privatized prisons and detention centers. Such initiatives deserve large public support.”
During interviews on Democracy Now! and Rolling Stone I stressed that refugees, the under-privileged and the interned are often voiceless and don’t deserve to be made little more than numbers to be processed for profit. A healthy society is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable. Greece is one of the worst examples of an undemocratic European Union imposing extreme austerity on a society that is already suffering (Salon published an extract of my chapter here).
A key aim of writing Disaster Capitalism (along with the film in progress of the same name) is to highlight how our modern, globalized world often benefits the corporate elites in the West at the expense of those we have occupied militarily or economically by featuring local individuals who are fighting back.
I’ve been interviewed by US Rolling Stone magazine by journalist Elisabeth Garber-Paul:
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein recently made the 30-hour trip from South Sudan to New York City after spending the better part of a year in the world’s newest nation, which he calls both “broken” and “a pretty fascinating place.”
“It’s easily dismissed as just another African civil war, and there’s elements of truth in that,” he says of the situation in that country, which has been embroiled in ongoing armed struggles since 2013, after winning independence from Sudan in 2011. “But there’s also a lot of complicity in how the world, especially the U.S., helped the country get born four years ago, and it’s all fallen apart.”
The way wealthy nations and their private interests influence and profit from poorer nations is the subject of a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, which Loewenstein published this fall. But South Sudan, despite its devastation, didn’t even make it as a main subject in the book. “I could have chosen South Sudan, where resource exploitation is rampant,” he says. “I could have chosen Mongolia, where in the last year it’s had the fastest growing economy in the world because of resources, and the vast majority of people are simply not benefitting.”
Instead, he singled out a few specific countries – Australia, the U.K. and the United States on one side; Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greece, Haiti and Papua New Guinea on the other – to detail just how many entities profit from natural and man-made crises across the globe. “The reason I started this book five years ago was my belief that there was too little discussion in the Western press of corporations behaving badly, not in just developing countries, but our own countries,” he says. From for-profit prisons, to bloated NGOs, to economic development projects designed to benefit multinational corporations, he argues that a handful in the West are thriving off the pain of the global poor.
The problem, he says, is that we’ve accepted this as the global norm. The Bush Administration wasn’t necessarily motivated by potential profit when it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq – but the administration happily helped private companies like Halliburton reap the rewards when the contracts came up. Loewenstein says that President Obama has continued down the same path: “Only a few years ago, you had the same politicians and intellectuals arguing for a so-called humanitarian intervention in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi. Virtually as soon as that happened, the country descended into chaos.” Now, he says, the same people are supporting the same sort of military solutions in Syria. “This, to me, is deeply problematic. If you don’t look at the last 10 years and wonder if that’s the case, then you have rocks in your head.”
The effects of Western policy decisions have been playing out on a large scale in the recent Syrian refugee crisis, a problem that Loewenstein believes Europe is handling with the same misguided methods that have been employed for the past decade. In the U.K., for example, some of the privatized detention centers that have been criticized by watchdog groups for their treatment of asylum seekers still hold contracts to house incoming refugees, and Loewenstein sees the plans being rolled out across Europe as efforts “to warehouse refugees rather than addressing the root causes of the problem…taking only a tiny percentage of refugees, attempting to send many back to their war-torn nations and spending billions of dollars on surveillance instead of resettlement. It’s a drop in the ocean, and the reason is that there is no serious acknowledgement of the reasons why these people are fleeing” – i.e., wars that have been “fundamentally fueled by Western foreign policy.”
In addition to the book, Loewenstein is working with documentarian Thor Neureiter to make a Disaster Capitalism film, which he hopes to have finished within a year. “The idea behind the film is to use three examples” – Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Haiti – to show “how the use of U.S. and foreign aid has not helped those countries, but in fact hindered them,” he says, noting how poorly NGOs tracked the flood of money into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “The argument is that exploitation either through resources or aid is the way to bring prosperity to the people,” he says. “But the facts on the ground simply do not bear that out. In fact, the opposite happens and there is massive corruption, insecurity, and violence. And that in turn brings profound resentment.”
Yesterday I was interviewed in London by Aaron Bastani from Novara FM. Perceptive and curious, Novara Media is one of Britain’s most interesting and progressive media outlets. During the interview we spoke about my new book, Disaster Capitalism, the state of the media and funding investigative and independent journalism:
My piece in the UK Independent “Indy Voices”:
Monetising the waves of refugees surging into Europe is not the most common human response to tragedy. One of the greatest mass movements of people in modern history has caused a huge outpouring of solidarity with those on the move. But it has also created anger, suspicion and violence.
A grim reality of the current migrant crisis sweeping Europe – a continent that prefers surveillance over humanitarian support – is the growing number of corporations seeing financial opportunity in the most vulnerable people. Refugees become numbers to be processed; the profit motive is paramount in the minds of many multinationals.
Immigration is big business. Globally, companies’ like European Homecare and ORS Service have grim records — treating both inmates and guards with contempt. There’s no financial incentive for the firm to provide the best training, healthcare, food or mental health. I’ve witnessed this firsthand in detention centres in both the US and Australia.
Politically, the arrangement also suits both the company and the government, blaming the other when something inevitably goes wrong. Publicly run detention centres and prisons are hardly utopian and remain replete with problems— but at least there’s one level of public accountability.
In Europe, today, many nations are struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. Some citizens in Greece have seen an opportunity to turn a profit and are asking new arrivals for far too much money for water and to charge their smartphones. More significantly, private housing firms in Sweden are massively overcharging for properties. Companies have been accused of profiteering in a country that takes large numbers of refugees, including unaccompanied children. Some private sector contractors are “cowboys who are only there because they want to make heaps of money”, Marie Sallnäs, professor of social work at Stockholm University, told the Guardian.
In Germany, housing company European Homecare is working for the government to provide refugee shelters. “We’re doing something some people consider dirty: we make money,” said company spokesman Klaus Kocks. With 1000 staff caring for 15,000 refugees across the state, the company has become a major player in the immigration industrial complex. Cash starved mayors and officials often find a privately run-company more attractive because costs are initially lower. But examples in other nations, such as America and Australia — where vast parts of the refugee network has been outsourced — shows that human rights are breached when the profit motive is the primary, determining factor.
ORS Service, a Swiss company running migrant reception centres, is doing well. Run by London-based private equity firm Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, it now operates in Germany and Austria and recorded $99 million in revenue last year. ORS Service has thrived on Europe’s inability to cope with the refugee crisis.
Traiskirchen camp in Austria, the largest migrant facility in the country, has seen food shortages, poor hygiene and overcrowding. The United Nations refugee agency said it was “beneath human dignity.” Responding to this claim, the Chief Executive of ORS said that the company is working to improve conditions. “Any professional would be brought to the limits of what is possible,” he said. “The team there does its very best, and in extremely difficult conditions.” Still, those conditions are unsurprising and unacceptable for anybody who has seen unaccountable and secretive privatised detention camps in America, Britain or Australia.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe”