By Mariam Hussein
When riots broke out in the detention centre on Christmas Island after the death of a detainee many wondered what more needed to happen for offshore processing sites to be shut down, and rightfully so. Australians have long been chastised on the world stage for apparently turning a cold shoulder to our government’s almost punitive approach to immigrants. But as more details of mistreatment come forward Australians are increasingly joining the camp criticizing our policies. Hundreds of protesters gathered in October in Sydney’s CDB to protest the centres ongoing operations. Mohammad Ali Baqiri, a refugee who spent several years in the detention centres, also joined the protests, arguing it was ethically and morally wrong. Yet despite the growing opposition, on August 31st Broadspectrum Limited, the company that used to go by the name Transfield Services, announced it was the preferred tenderer by the government to manage offshore processing facilities.
Whilst Australia has been split on the issue of accepting people seeking asylum it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the decisions being made are coming from politicians very far removed from the reality of the facilities. A former employer at one of the centres described it as “inhumane”. He went on to say that “expecting people to live packed like sardines into tin sheds in 35–40 degree heat with only four fans to cool the place down just shouldn’t be allowed. It’s just ridiculous”.
In an attempt to undermine the decisions being made, a group called ‘No Business In Abuse’ has been targeting the service provider by reaching out to its investors and trying to convince them to divest. In this No Business In has succeeded somewhat. One company to head the advice of the group is HESTA Super Fund who announced on August 18th that they will be selling their investment in Broadspectrum, valued at about $23 million. HESTA raised concerns over the significant evidence of sexual and physical assault under Broadspectrum’s control and that the “strict confidentiality clauses in Transfield’s government contracts meant the company was unable to answer questions we needed answers to”.
No Business in Abuse has received expected criticism from various groups, such as companies with shares in Broadspectrum. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton also weighed in on the issue by saying that “political activism has no place in the Australian marketplace”, a comment which shows at once his national stripes and his distance from any economic authority.
This year’s Senate inquiry should have been enough to end Broadspectrum’s contract with the government. Among considerable evidence it reported that 30 formal allegations of child abuse had been made against staff on the processing centres and 854 written complaints were received by Transfield Services in just over a year, 725 of which were in relation to staff, 96 against Transfield employees.
During the inquiry Transfield representatives were unable to provide basic information. Instead they gave the standard response that they will ‘take it on notice’ to frustrated senators that tried to get more information on serious allegations made as well as the poor conditions of the centres.
The inquiry concluded by stating that “the regional processing centre on Nauru is not run well, nor are Wilson Security and Transfield Services properly accountable to the Commonwealth despite the significant investment in their services”.
Despite all this, Dutton’s response was to label the inquiry, which included 2 Labor, 2 Liberal and a Greens Senator, as a “political witch hunt” and soon after announced the company was still the government’s preferred tenderer, and that they had secured a 5 year contract, which started in late October.
So while Broadspectrum Chairman, Dian Smith-Gander, is right in saying that Australians should “engage directly with the government” if they want to change the policy instead of targeting her company, she ignores the fact that when they have tried the government has continually diverted the discussion away from the suffering of people in the detention centre.
When a Human Rights Commission report headed by Professor Gillian Triggs was released, the Abbott government again shot down any chance of a discussion. The report, The Forgotten Children, detailed that children on Nauru were “suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress” with 207 instances of actual self-harm. However, instead of addressing these serious issues the government decided to attack Professor Triggs. Once again evading serious discussion on the ongoing suffering.
Broadspectrum have been affected by their involvement with the detention centres so much that they lost their license to the Transfield brand, forcing them to rebrand. They have also come out publicly to defend their action, realising the damage that could be done by the campaign against them. Smith-Gander, Broadspectrum Chairman, used The Financial Review to target investors’ concerns where she described herself as being “proud” of their work in the detention centres. They have also offered to send investors to the sites.
At a United Nations human rights forum in Novemeber the U.S stated that Australia should closely monitor the sites while Germany suggested we “remove children and their families, and other individuals at risk, from immigration detention”. However, an array of countries slamming Australia’s offshore processing sites at the forum was described by Dutton as being ‘a farce’. The countries concerned even urged Australia to ratify an international convention against torture known as ‘OPCAT’. But our delegates had their responses ready, insisting that in order to save lives Australia needed to send a message to people seeking asylum in Australia that they would not be accepted.
No Business In Abuse has reasons to take action against the service provided even though the responsibility ultimately lies with the government. Apparently having this issue locked down under ideological differences, not humanitarian needs, the government seems fine with ignoring the advice of inquiries, its constituents, foreign countries and international organizations.