Nightmare on Christmas Island: Serco's Australian Detention Center
Some 1,600 miles from the West Coast of Australia; Christmas Island sits
alone, surrounded by the Indian Ocean. The cliff-bound territory, with
some 1,400 residents on just over 50 square miles, hosts a detention
center where thousands of immigrants who tried to enter Australia
illegally are indefinitely detained. The policy of intercepting and
holding without charge asylum seekers --including more than 1,000
children--has sparked political debate in Australia. But Serco, the UK
company contracted to manage the center, has largely escaped scrutiny.
failure to perform is huge," says Kaye Bernard, an organizer with the
Christmas Island Workers Union. Bernard meets regularly with workers
from the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (IDC). This year,
several centers have teetered on the brink of chaos on numerous
occasions, with riots at the Christmas Island and the Villawood IDC
located in New South Wales. Unable to deal with the situation, Serco has
called in the Australian Federal Police force, which has fired tear gas
and rubber bullets at protesting detainees. Various human and refugee
rights groups have accused Serco guards of brutality including beating
The nine major IDCs within the Australian Immigration
Detention Network include the Christmas Island facility, as well as at
the Curtin, Scherger, Villawood, Marybirnong IDCs, scattered around
mainland Australia. Immigration detention costs have risen to more than
$1 billion in the past two years, according to Liberal Party shadow
immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison. The Department of Immigration
and Citizenship (DIAC), estimated that there were 6,872 detainees in
immigration detention on April 15, 2011, with 1,102 in detention for
more than 12 months. As of August 16, the centers held 5,622 detainees.
of the people seeking asylum in Australia are from Afghanistan, Iran,
Iraq or Sri Lanka. As of April 15, some 2,258 Afghan, including Hazara
who fled persecution by the Taliban, comprised the largest detainee
The average time in detention fluctuates between 280
days and 300 days, and "the longer people stay in detention, the worse
their mental health," says head of Suicide Prevention Australia, Dr
Michael Dudley. His assessment is confirmed in a report commissioned by
the Australian government, in which the Detention Health Advisory Group
(DeHAG) established a direct correlation between time in immigration
detention and mental health problems: "[H]igh rates of major depression,
anxiety and trauma," it noted, are exacerbated by time spent in
"There's one man who's dug himself a six-foot grave in B2 compound and he's been sleeping there day and night," says Bernard.
FTSE 1000 international service company, Serco has grown largely
through the outsourcing of public services, particularly from successive
UK governments. Now worth an estimated $4 billion, Serco is involved in
hospitals, traffic management, prisons, immigration detention, military
logistics, military health support, prisoner transport and custodial
security, education, health and justice, amongst other activities.
Serco Group has operations throughout Europe, Asia, North America and
Africa. More than 90 percent its revenue is derived from government
contracts or franchises awarded by governments.
According to a
Serco spokesperson: "Serco's experiences go beyond immigration detention
centres and prisons, and it is this wider knowledge of public sector
management that is utilised to maintain a high level of service to
customers and clients."
The company has numerous operations in
Australia, having recently won contracts to manage Fiona Stanley
Hospital and the Acacia Prison, as well as deals to provide court
security and custodial services in Western Australia, provide logistical
support to the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, and manage the
Borallon Correctional Facility in Queensland. The extent of Serco's
involvement in Australia's military is underscored by the fact that
Serco maintains a presence in every military base in Australia.
immigration detention, by removing "direct ministerial control over the
daily operation of detention centers, not only allows governments to
distance themselves from practices that might be condemned as abusive,
but also has a deadening effect on public discussion," Dr. Michael
Grewcock of the University of New South Wales told the Sydney Morning Herald.
privatisation of Australia's immigration detention had a troubled
history even before Serco's arrival. Australasian Correctional
Management and G4S were awarded contracts, in 1997 and 2003
respectively, to manage the country's immigration detention centers, and
both private companies attracted strong criticism.
2009, the federal government awarded Serco a $367 million contract
(since increased to $756 million) to manage Australia's Immigration
For Serco, the detention center deal
"demonstrates our ability to successfully leverage our world-leading
home affairs capabilities to further broaden our presence in Australia,"
said Serco CEO Christopher Hyman in a media release announcing the 2009
The conduct of the British company was
controversial from the start. Serco has been fined for breaches of
contract for every month that it has managed IDCs in Australia,
according to Bernard. In March, The Australian reported that Serco had
been fined a total of $4 million in early 2011. "We cannot detail
breaches, fines imposed or other issues related to Serco's contract as
they are considered commercial-in-confidence," a spokesperson for the
Department of Immigration and Citizenship told CorpWatch.
the contract itself is confidential and Serco would not provide details
even to the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention
Network, which has been established by Federal Parliament to
investigate the management of Australia's immigration detention network.
As elsewhere in the world,
Australian politicians have won votes by appealing to nativist and
racist sentiments. As recently as 1966, Australian immigration was
governed by the highly controversial "White Australia Policy," the first
piece of legislation passed by the Australian Federal Parliament, which
restricted non-Caucasian immigration to Australia. Although this policy
was abandoned, anti-immigrant sentiment continued. In 1992 the federal
government under Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating introduced mandatory
detention for all asylum seekers arriving in Australia without prior
Temporary facilities on Christmas Island were
first established in late 2001, but the issue exploded during the 2001
Federal election. Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley was favored to
defeat incumbent Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party until a
sinking fishing boat heaving at the seams with 438 asylum seekers
(predominantly from Afghanistan) was rescued by the MS Tampa, a
Norwegian tanker. The Australian government's refusal to allow the
ship's captain to bring the asylum seekers to Christmas Island sparked a
major maritime crisis.
Since then, both major parties have
"been able to demonize asylum seekers by appealing to baseless fears,"
says Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young who was part of a
group that visited the facilities in September.
significantly in the polls, Howard appealed to anti-immigrant
sentiments: "We will decide who comes into this country, and the
circumstances in which they come," he said. This hard-line assertion,
which was often greeted with rapturous applause, became his catch phrase
and was widely credited for helping swing the election in his favor. In
the 2010 election campaign, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott also
campaigned on the simplistic promise that he would "stop the boats."
year, with the issue of immigration spiralling out of control, Labor
Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached an agreement with Malaysia to
accept 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australia waters. After the
Australian High Court scuppered the plan, the Gillard government
proposed a bill to revise immigration laws and legitimate the agreement.
Then in a humiliating about face, Gillard announced on October 13 that
she was killing the refugees swap plan and would process asylum seekers
on Australian soil.
So for now, immigrants and refugees continue
to be diverted Christmas Island, which became an Australian territory in
1957 after Canberra paid Singapore Â£2.9 million in compensation for
lost revenues from phosphate mining.
Mental Health Problems, Poorly Trained Staff
remote centers run by Serco are chronically overcrowded and
understaffed, and access to mental and physical health care is limited,
Christmas Island Workers Union's Bernard charges. Although Serco
maintains some medical staffing, many problems require more specialized
attention. Even at the Curtin detention center in mainland Western
Australia, an ambulance trip to the nearest hospital takes 45 minutes,
and except for a few days a month, there are no psychiatrists on site,
with most assessments performed by phone.
Many detainees have
experienced serious physical and mental health problems. From January to
June of this year, 1,507 detainees were hospitalized, while on
Christmas Island alone, there were 620 self-harm incidents, including
suicide attempts. Since October 2010, five people have committed suicide
in immigration detention centers in Australia, while "there have been
many near misses," says Dudley, chair of Suicide Prevention Australia.
the problem appears to be worsening. "In the first week of June when I
visited Christmas Island, more than 30 incidents of self harm by
detainees held there were reported," Australian Ombudsman, Allan Asher,
who is currently investigating this matter, told ABC radio program AM.
acknowledges the escalating problem, but blames the detainees for
"creating a culture of self harm," and using it as "bargaining tool,"
according a May 31 memo issued by Serco management to staff, and leaked
to The Australian.
Dudley disagrees, charging that Serco
staffers "have no particular mental health skills to address the needs
of detainees, and [they] operate from a prison model." Serco exacerbates
the problem when, "self harming asylum seekers -- possibly victims of
torture and trauma -- are put in solitary confinement," said Dudley.
also worries about the impact on workers. "I greatly doubt that there
is any meaningful level of support to individual staff in often morally
ambiguous situations, and suspect that morale for many staff, who are
often very young, would be low."
After a recent wave of
attempted suicides, staffers "were just in tears," laments Bernard. One
young guard attended six code-blue self-harm incidents in a four hour
period. Another, Kieran Webb, worked at the remote Curtin IDC for 6
months, where one of his charges, a 19-years-old Afghan man, Mohammad
Atay, committed suicide on March 28. A few months later, while on
holiday with his family, Webb, also 19, killed himself.
young 20-somethings with no training, no experience, are just thrown out
there with no support," says Bernard. "One minute they are driving a
forklift in a warehouse, the next they are in charge of a compound of
100 to 200 men."
On October 10, The Australian reported
that Serco is also using subcontractors to recruit staff. "An English
backpacker on a tourist visa, Australians straight from high school, and
overseas students are among hundreds of casual workers earning up to
$450 a day as "officers" in immigration detention centres.
hold licences to act as security officers including a level II in
Security Operations. Regular checks are undertaken to verify this is the
case," a Serco spokesman told The Australian.
II in Security Operations takes five to 10 days to complete, industry
wide. But, according to a Serco spokesman, staffers attend four weeks of
training before assuming their positions. In May, the ABC program Lateline,
interviewed an anonymous Christmas Island IDC guard, who described the
amount of training as, "to put it bluntly, stuff all." He said that
staffing rosters contained names of non-existent guards. "They're not on
the island, but they are on the roster."
A month earlier a
Villawood IDC guard had told ABC that "Serco got rid of the training
course, using staffing levels as an excuse and basically threw the staff
on the floor." A Serco spokesman denies this charge, noting that the
company has invested "more than $1.5 million in training Serco
Immigration Services employees," providing "programs that meet, and in
some cases exceed, the obligations outlined in its contract with DIAC."
is unacceptable," says Hanson-Young, "that Serco staff lack proper
qualifications for dealing with people who have been traumatised, let
alone vulnerable children."
Understaffing is also a perennial
problem, says Hanson-Young. The company "does not maintain any staff to
detainee ratios because it's not in the company's contract with Serco,"
she said citing the joint committee report.
The Christmas Island
center was "typically 15 staff members short per day," former manager
of the IDC Ray Wiley wrote to senior Serco management in October 2010.
Such chronic understaffing "debilitates the worker to the extent that
many have developed post-traumatic stress disorder," says Bernard.
to Bernard, Serco staffers at Christmas Island told her "how scared
they were, and how they had not had any training." In fact, Serco has
subcontracted part of the staffing to MSS Security, said Steven Karras,
acting DIAC regional manager at the Christmas Island IDC, and he is "not
aware of any mental health awareness training" for MSS staff.
refutes the claim that their staff do not undergo mental health
training. "Mental health awareness and suicide awareness training" is
part of the initial four week training program says a company
spokesperson, who asked not to be named.
Claims of understaffing
were also "incorrect and show little understanding of the staffing
required at each site," said the spokesperson. Company staffing models
consider a "wide range of factors, making it a far more complex
determination that simply a staff to client ratio."
isolation of centers such as Christmas Island and the often short-term
notice for replacements, staff numbers were not always ideal, he said,
and there are "increased risks at some sites."
Overcrowding and Overwork
qualifications and lack of training contribute not only to staff
burn-out and trauma, but to detainee unrest. In March 2011, riots at
Christmas Island pushed staff to the breaking point. "When all the riots
were happening, staff worked 21 days straight, working up to 18 hours
per day," says Bernard. "There was one staff member who was literally
falling over from exhaustion, and we told them to go home. One of the
senior managers from Serco turned up at their home and told them to get
back to work." Such treatment "poses a threat to life for both the
worker and detainees," says Bernard.
magnifies the problems. In the first half of 2011, Christmas Island was
over capacity on 28 occasions, according to documents released by DIAC
to the inquiry of the joint select committee. In 2010, 144 detainees
were being kept in classrooms, 92 in storerooms, 30 in a visiting area,
and 240 in tents where they were supervised by a sole officer, according
to former IDC manger Wiley.
Crowding was so serious that the
visitor center at Christmas Island was converted to accommodate
detainees on suicide watch, Karras told a hearing of the joint select
committee which met on September 6 on Christmas Island. But the day
before the committee arrived, Serco tried to mask the actual usage of
this space by relocating the at-risk detainees and removing their beds
from the visitor center, according to Bernard.
At the same
hearing, Bernard told the committee that when staffers complain,
incident reports to Serco can end up in Bin 13, aka the paper shredder. A
Serco spokesperson counters that "all major incidents are reported
directly to DIAC."
But Comcare, the government agency responsible
for workplace safety confirms "under-reporting of notifiable
incidents." And since Serco reports on itself, says Bernard, "there is
an incentive not to report incidents that may incur a fine, while there
is an incentive for the government to hide the truth," since unrest in
detention centers provides the opposition with political fodder.
Furthermore, the confidentiality agreements that all staff members are
expected to sign, "are used as part of a fear and intimidation
management practice to stop workers from reporting serious incidents and
speaking out on OHS issues," says Bernard.
With the failure of
the Gillard government's plans for transferring detainees to Malaysia,
the focus will return to onshore processing of asylum seekers. But it is
unlikely that Australia will move away from the growing trend of
Serco CEO Christopher Hyman describes the change
from government's traditional role as one of provider of services to a
'procurer of services." These "new ways to fundamentally transform the
efficiency and productivity of essential services," he says, "will
result in a broadening of opportunities in existing markets, and the
continued development of new markets, both in the UK and overseas." Kaye
Bernard puts it differently: "Serco is making a killing."