Companies like Transfield are under attack for running offshore migration detention centres, but they are the wrong target, argues Carly Gordyn.
Incidents of asylum seeker self-harm occur roughly every four days in the Australian-run detention centre on Nauru.
This is no official secret. Transfield, the company in charge of Australia’s offshore detention facilities, provided this information to a Senate committee inquiry on Nauru earlier this year, along with other evidence of horrific occurrences.
In response, the group No Business in Abuse has criticised Transfield for running “camps in which people are trying to kill themselves every four days” and have urged Transfield’s shareholders to divest. This campaign has been partially successful, with some major superannuation funds recently selling their shares in the company. Despite this opposition, Transfield was recently chosen again as the government’s ‘preferred provider’ to run the detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, with the contract currently under negotiation. This decision has been slammed by activists and the Australian Human Rights Commission president, Gillian Triggs.
The criticisms aimed at Transfield are similar to those previously raised against other detention providers and subcontractors, like Serco, G4S and the Salvation Army. The fact that almost any company that has been involved in one of Australia’s detention centres has been criticised points to the obvious: this is the nature of detention camps.
The kind of desperation and despair that leads people into attempting suicide or inflicting physical harm on themselves is something that comes with being locked up in a remote centre with no vision of the future, regardless of which company is administering that misery.
Yes, some companies can get it really wrong. Having worked in a number of detention centres under different companies, I know first-hand just how wrong they can get it.
Some companies are all head and no heart, while others are all heart and no head. There are companies that do some things better and others much worse. Despite these differences in values and expertise, detention providers face the same challenges, including finding and retaining suitable people to work in such an environment, maintaining overused and outdated infrastructure, and dealing with sudden changes in government policies.
If there is one thing that these companies do care about, it is surviving as a profitable business. To do so they need to meet their contractual obligations with the government. Failure to meet these requirements will result in large fines and the possibility of losing their contract when it comes up for renewal.
The government issues monthly fines for contractual failings; these range from small details like the incorrect ruling of lines in reports, to issues of huge significance relating to the running of the centre and wellbeing of the asylum seekers.
The fact that Transfield has recently been declared the government’s preferred provider of offshore detention means that it isn’t failing in its contract too drastically, and this is the problem.
The problem is in the detail of the contract the government has made with the detention providers. The contractors are doing only what they are being asked to do. Sometimes they don’t do this very well, but they will attempt to meet these obligations as much as they are contracted to, and go no further.
There is only so much a provider can do with government policy other than implement it in the way they have been contracted. Those who criticise detention providers are right to be outraged that companies can profit off such horrible treatment of human beings, but they should focus their efforts on the creators of these contracts: the government.
After all, it is the government that has created the “camps in which people are trying to kill themselves every four days and sexual assaults occur every four months” as Shen Narayanasamy, the executive director of No Business in Abuse says.
Yes, the companies could always do more, and indeed there is much room for improvement in their management of the centres, but the only long-term solution is to cease offshore detention for asylum seekers altogether.
Carly Gordyn is a PhD candidate researching Australia’s asylum seeker policies at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs.