Image source: Canberra Times/The Age

Does it matter who runs our offshore immigration detention centres?

12 December 2015

The company that is responsible for running our offshore detention centres where asylum seekers harm themselves every four days could be sold to a Spanish company. Broadspectrum, formally known as Transfield, has been approached for a take-over by Madrid-based Ferrovial​. This bid raises some important questions about how foreign ownership will affect accountability and governance of the detention centres, as well as the treatment of the asylum seekers and refugees within them.

Ferrovial sees the take-over of Broadspectrum as a platform from which to grow its business in Australia. The company is currently offering Broadspectrum shareholders $1.35 a share, after its offer of $2 a share was rejected last year. Ferrovial is a large foreign company, employing more than 69,000 people across 25 countries in a range of industries and services, similar to the other foreign company running some of Australia’s detention centres – Serco – who employs 100,000 people across 30 countries in an even more extensive range of industries.

The extensive and diverse portfolios of foreign service companies like Ferrovial and Serco make these companies less vulnerable to domestic social backlash. For Australian owned Broadspectrum, however, detention contracts represent almost four-fifths of their income, making the company more vulnerable to social outrage and backlash. Such a backlash occurred earlier this year with protests against Broadspectrum (thenTransfield), which resulted in a largely successful divestment campaign and lowered the stock market value of the company.

Although Ferrovial may be more resilient in the face of domestic outrage, the foreign company is still very much accountable to the Australian government as the contract owner. And the Australian government, as a ‘good international citizen’, member to the UN and party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) amongst other international conventions, is very much accountable for the human rights abuses that occur in these centres. This was highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee, who declared that all countries who are party to the ICCPR are responsible for ensuring and respecting the civil and political rights of all persons within that country’s territory, or subject to that country’s jurisdiction (whether they are situated within the territory of that country or not). This also applies to those who have the power of or enforce the power of that country outside its own territory, such as foreign companies carrying out government contracts.

Therefore the Australian government cannot wash its hands of its international obligations by delegating its work to foreign companies. Whether or not abuse is carried out at the hands of Broadspectrum staff, Ferrovial staff or government officials themselves, the Australian government remains responsible for any misconduct or breach of civil and political rights as laid out in the ICCPR.

The question remains about what kind of changes Ferrovial might bring to the detention centres and whether or not such change will constitute a mere change in ownership or the much needed change in management.

In the end, it doesn’t matter greatly who is running the detention centres. Where profits are to be made, companies are there to snatch them and maximise them – often through disgusting cost-cutting measures. We have seen every detention provider and subcontractor – like Transfield, Wilson, the Salvation Army, Save the Children, G4S, and Serco – be criticised for its abhorrent management of the centres. But many problems are inherent in detention centres where people are locked up in an isolated limbo with mixed messages from the government and no hope for the future; it’s no wonder people self-harm every four days. The only real way to stop this is to put an end to offshore detention and find a humane way to process the claims of people who are desperately seeking our help.

Read the original article by Carly Gordon in The Canberra Times.

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