The riot at Australia’s offshore processing centre for asylum seekers on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), last month, which left one detainee dead and more than 70 others injured, has put the spotlight on the outsourcing of numerous aspects of migration control to private security companies.
As states around the world have introduced stricter border controls and expanded the use of immigration detention, they have increasingly turned to a handful of multi-national companies to manage a range of functions that used to be considered the sole responsibility of governments. Critics argue that the use of these companies to run detention centres, guard borders and escort deportees has made it extremely difficult to hold someone to account when things go badly wrong, as they did on the night of 17 February at the Manus Island centre.
There are conflicting versions of what happened that night. While several investigations are ongoing, detainees have claimed that during the unrest, local employees of G4S, the company contracted to manage the facility, beat them repeatedly with improvised weapons such as rocks and iron bars. Other accounts have blamed local PNG police and angry locals allowed into the compound for the head wounds that killed 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati.
Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, research director at the Danish Institute for Human Rights who has written extensively about what he calls “the migration industry” points out that if the violations at Manus Island had taken place under the watch of Australian immigration workers, “there would be a much easier case of legal responsibility”.
“The fact that [the Manus Island facility] is simultaneously located offshore and subject to this unclear memorandum of understanding [with the PNG government], means that the legal assessment is much more complicated,” he told IRIN.
While a number of countries now use private companies to manage their immigration detention facilities, Australia went a significant step further in 2012 by outsourcing detention of asylum seekers to two other countries. In addition to the Manus Island facility in PNG, which can hold up to 1,100 asylum seekers, there is another on the tiny island nation of Nauru that can hold 1,200.
Australia’s agreements with PNG and Nauru are based on memorandums of understanding that are vague on issues such as detainee welfare and monitoring, noting only that “participants will treat Transferees with dignity and respect and in accordance with relevant human rights standards”.
Unlike Australia’s domestic detention facilities, which regularly receive visits from local NGOs and faith-based groups, the Manus Island and Nauru facilities have received only three or four visits from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International since they opened in late 2012. Following their visits to Manus Island, both UNHCR and Amnesty International were highly critical of the conditions they found there describing them as “harsh” and “inhumane”.
Questions on accountability
“The very basic accountability mechanisms promised when [the offshore facilities] were established have not been put in place,” said Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia. “There isn’t really a monitoring system in place.”
Gammeltoft-Hansen argues that the privatization of migration control has made it more difficult to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse, even when they occur in front of dozens of witnesses. This was the case with Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum seeker who was so heavily restrained by the private security guards escorting him during a deportation flight out of Heathrow in October 2010 that he lost consciousness and died.
Despite the outcome of an inquest in July 2013, which found Mubenga was unlawfully killed, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service has yet to press criminal charges against the guards who were employed by G4S, the same company running the Manus Island facility and the largest security company in the world. The UK’s Home Office faced no criminal liability, and simply switched providers, awarding a new contract for deportations to the company Reliance (now called Tascor), which has since been linked to numerous allegations of abuse.
Shortly after the riots on Manus Island, Australia replaced G4S with Transfield Services, which will earn US$1.1 billion over 20 months to run the centres on both Manus Island and Nauru.
“The logic of privatization suggests that states can distance themselves from responsibility by simply firing the company in question,” said Gammeltoft-Hansen. “But there are really only three or four global players in this industry.”
Phil Miller, a researcher with UK-based non-profit Corporate Watch who has investigated the main contractors employed by the UK’s immigration authorities, agreed that “once the government has decided to run these things privately, there are only a handful of companies to choose from”, none of them with a record free of abuse allegations or safety lapses.
G4S continues to run two immigration removal centres in the UK. It also provides electronic monitoring services and shares a contract with two other companies to manage asylum seeker housing. One of its main competitors, Serco, has been caught up in sexual abuse allegations involving guards at its Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire.
Another company, Mitie, has just been awarded contracts to run two detention facilities in West London despite failing to follow recommendations by the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service to install a sprinkler system at its Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, which would have prevented a fire from spreading there in October 2013.
The decision to outsource to private security companies is often justified as a cost-savings exercise, but according to Miller “there is no evidence that privatization is more cost effective except for that provided by the companies themselves”.
Don Flynn, director of the Migrant Rights Network, a UK-based NGO, argues that the low cost, high volume model that now characterizes detention services is inappropriate when dealing with immigration detainees, a high proportion of whom are asylum seekers with a history of trauma. “You’re dealing with severely depressed people who’ve got multiple needs,” he told IRIN.
Gammeltoft-Hansen said there was evidence to suggest that private contractors are less likely to invest in welfare services for detainees, and even in essential services that might have prevented the riots at Manus Island. “We simply don’t know what the profit motive means in practice because of the lack of transparency,” he added.
About half of the UK’s 11 immigration detention centres are privately run and conditions at these centres are not necessarily worse than at state-managed facilities, said Eiri Ohtani of the Detention Forum, a network of about 30 NGOs working on immigration detention issues in the UK. The centres are generally well regulated and monitored, she told IRIN. But citing the Jimmy Mubenga case and the Yarl’s Wood sexual abuse allegations, she added, “what we’ve found is that there’s a failure of the government to join the dots when something goes wrong at private security companies”.
Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia, where all immigration detention facilities have been in the hands of private contractors for over a decade, said that government agencies and private security companies there have a similarly mixed record in terms of their treatment of immigration detainees. “The accountability systems that are put in place are the most important aspect of it,” he told IRIN. “There are systems in place in Australia, but I think they’re unacceptable.”
For some migrant rights activists, the most worrying aspect of the privatization of migration control is how it has helped drive the global trend towards greater criminalization of migration. The UK now has about 4,000 designated immigration detention beds (spaces allocated in detention centres) compared to between 200 and 300 beds 15 years ago and detains nearly 30,000 asylum seekers and undocumented migrants a year.
In the last 20 years, the US has also seen a massive expansion in immigration detention, and now maintains 34,000 detention beds at a cost of about $2 billion a year. Private security companies like GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) manage nearly half of these beds and spend considerable amounts to retain lobbying firms. While various rights groups and media outlets have alleged that their aim is to influence immigration and detention policy, a spokesperson for CCA, Steven Owen, told IRIN that “under longstanding policy, CCA does not draft, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis or duration for an individual’s incarceration or detention”.
Elsewhere, Owen explained: “The primary focus of our lobbying efforts is education on the merits and benefits of public-private partnership in corrections and detention generally, and the relevant services CCA provides."
“Those companies are huge lobbying forces,” said Michelle Brané, director of the detention and asylum programme at the Women’s Refugee Commission, based in New York. “We know they regularly visit congressional offices and they have a clear incentive for immigration detention to be contracted to them.”
Miller of Corporate Watch said that, in terms of personnel, “there’s a revolving door between the private and public [security] sectors” in the UK, a situation that has given senior management at the top security companies access to lobby their government counterparts for yet more increases in the use of their services to monitor, detain and deport immigration offenders, including failed asylum seekers.
“If you look at who gives advice to some of these private companies, several former ministers are involved,” confirmed Ohtani of the Detention Forum, which is advocating for more public debate about the mushrooming of immigration detention in the UK.
Gammeltoft-Hansen notes that once governments have gone down the road of privatizing migration control, it is very difficult to reverse direction due to the loss of expertise and manpower in the public sector. In both the UK and in Australia, incoming administrations have promised to abandon privatization of detention centres, only to award more contracts to private security firms after taking office. “It’s what we call the lock-in effect,” said Gammeltoft-Hansen.
“Over time, these private companies will have more know-how about how to do these tasks and increasingly are going to be setting the parameters and setting the policy directions,” he warned.
* This story was amended on 12 March after IRIN received an email from CCA stating that a report by the National Immigration Forum, cited in the original version of this article, had erred in claiming that CCA had lobbied legislators on immigration issues.