The secretive business of detention dirty work



If you're not burdened by a conscience, it's a perfect get-rich-quick scheme: offer 'garrison' services to governments reluctant to get their hands dirty. Ensure the vulnerable people you 'manage' are hidden away, and demonised by bigoted politicians and right-wing commentators. Hire cheap labour, minimise your tax, and make millions.

Shamindan Kanapathi, pictured with one of the camp dog puppies from Manus Island. Published with permission.Paladin, the Australian company running the now-dwindling immigration facilities in Lorengau, Manus Island, is a prime example: with limited experience and a shadowy record, this small outfit has been earning $20m per month, pocketing most of it.

On its website, Paladin says it works in 'challenging environments' to 'manage risk' and 'reduce client exposure'. Translation: we'll take the heat off you. This secretive company won the Manus Island contract in a controversial closed tender process. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said he had no hand in the $530m deal, which is now the subject of two probes.

Australia's use of Manus Island as an offshore detention base is being quietly wound down, thanks to pressure from the Papua New Guinean government. But around 350 asylum seekers remain in PNG, their daily lives managed and monitored by private contractors. Paladin oversees the 120-odd remaining men who've been detained on Manus Island for six years. The company has presided over a regime of despair, with over 70 reported suicide attempts or self-harm incidents since the federal election.

Paladin guards also oversee the Granville Motel, Citi Boutique and Lodge 10 in Port Moresby, where many asylum seekers are housed. The men held at Citi Boutique are subject to strict curfews and arbitrary rules. At the Granville, where sick men await medical treatment, there have been several suicide attempts, and an asylum seeker was assaulted during an armed holdup in July. 

Last week, on 12 August, some 50 asylum seekers were moved from Manus to the new Australian-funded Bomana Immigration Centre, part of a Port Moresby prison complex, in an arrangement refugee advocates fear will be indefinite. The facility is run by Controlled Outcomes, which is jointly owned by Australian security firm C5 and PNG company Tactical Solutions International. While Home Affairs denies any involvement in awarding the multi-million dollar Bomana contract, Australian government officials were present when the tenders were assessed. 

On Monday 19 August the PNG government offered the asylum-seekers who remain on Manus Island voluntary relocation to Port Moresby, where they've been promised 'residential accommodation' and healthcare. At the time of writing (20 August), most of the men look set to accept the offer, but they remain wary about their safety and prospects on the mainland.


"'People are at the centre of what we do,' boasts Paladin's website. Damn right they are: it's an industry based on human suffering. And it's global in scale."


'It's not safe in Port Moresby. Many refugees have been attacked and robbed there,' says Shamindan Kanapathi (pictured), a 28-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil currently housed in Manus Island's West Lorengau facility. He says most of the asylum seekers have agreed to relocate because they fear the alternative.

'They are afraid that if they do not go to [Port Moresby] they will be harassed and eventually the police force will be used, [as] happened in Lombrum.' When the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island was closed after a PNG High Court ruling in 2017, the camp came under attack from angry locals and shots were fired. Food and water were cut off before the 600 detainees were forcibly relocated to the Lorengau facilities.

As Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker and journalist Behrouz Boochani points out, Paladin is just one of many companies to have profited handsomely from perpetuating human misery in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The roster includes Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield), G4S, Wilson Security, International Health and Medical Services, Pacific International Hospital, Applus Wokman (formerly JDA), Kingfisher and NKW Holdings. Despite scant experience, Brisbane construction firm Canstruct International, a Liberal party donor, scored contracts worth $591m to run Nauru's offshore immigration facility, without having to tender.

Collectively, these companies have presided over 12 deaths, numerous suicide attempts, riots and murder, assaults and brutal bashings, reports of child abuse and child rape, sexual assaultssexual coercion, widespread mental illness and severe trauma, self-immolation, substandard medical care, and a recent typhoid outbreak. Many staff also suffer, becoming burnt out and desensitised. Others stand accused of sexual crimes and violence against detainees.

'People are at the centre of what we do,' boasts Paladin's website. Damn right they are: it's an industry based on human suffering. And it's global in scale. Governments worldwide are outsourcing the running of prisons, detention centres and migrant internment camps to predatory private companies with vested interests in keeping these hellholes full and profitable.

Immigration 'facilities' are shadowlands, closed to public scrutiny. Many of the companies running them have been accused of unethical or criminal behaviour, including fraud, inflating invoices, underpaying staff and covering up sexual abuse. And the trouble's not just offshore. UK-based multinational Serco — which runs mainland prisons and detention centres in Australia, and ran the Christmas Island facility — has come under fire for the  abuse of child detainees and sexual assaults on female asylum seekers in the UK, and was recently fined £23m for fraud and false accounting; locally, Serco has been accused of using excessive force on detainees. A former Paladin company director has been charged with fraud and money laundering, and an ex-employee alleges the company engaged in deceptive conduct and bullying.

In his 2013 book Profits of Doom, journalist Antony Loewenstein puts this brand of 'vulture capitalism' under the microscope. 'These corporations principally care about making money and not providing the best care for refugees and the most vulnerable. It's why they're wholly unsuitable to get these contracts,' says Loewenstein.

Our punitive immigration detention regime costs Australian taxpayers billions. In outsourcing it, the federal government has been following an old dictum: if something stinks, best hold it at arm's length. But bad smells tend to linger. The government and its corporate partners stand accused of illegal imprisonment and crimes against humanity, including torture and persecution, over their treatment of detainees. 'Every single company that has taken on these toxic contracts has been implicated in abuses,' says Keren Adams, legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre. 'That's the very nature of the system.'

Despite offshore detention on Manus Island being quietly wound down, the asylum seekers who remain in PNG face ongoing uncertainty about the future, and a legacy of ill health and trauma as a direct result of Australia's immigration policies. 'It's been six years. We've lost the best part of our lives,' says Shamindan Kanapathi. In that time, he's watched his fellow detainees go from strong, healthy men to sick, vulnerable ones. 'This systematic torture has completely destroyed us. Most of the men [have] lost their hope ... they want to end their lives.'

A lifelong animal lover, Shamindan has befriended Manus Island's camp dogs and aspires to train as a vet. 'We could have been doing something progressive with our lives, instead of being tortured here,' he says.

There are some positive signs: offshore detainee numbers have dwindled, and Home Affairs deputy secretary Cheryl-Anne Moy has said many companies avoid immigration detention contracts because they attract 'too much noise'. Refugee advocates have helped boost the signal, as have some former staff. Broadspectrum/Transfield and Wilson Security left the industry after activist campaigns, and public pressure eventually saw children removed from offshore detention.

But Australia's immigration regime is still inflicting unconscionable suffering, and private companies are still reaping the profits. Adults and children remain imprisoned in our mainland detention centres, where there have been three suicides in recent months, while desperate people on Manus Island swallow razor blades and set themselves on fire. On Nauru, despite the change to an 'open centre', hundreds of people remain effectively trapped in substandard camps. The new Bomana facility in Port Moresby operates like a prison: on entry the detainees had to surrender their phones and medication, and were told not to leave their rooms. 

These deadly places are mostly run by private companies, who make millions of dollars from perpetuating human suffering. Whether off or onshore, Australia's immigration detention regime is leaving a legacy of damaged children, traumatised adults, and broken lives. To deter these corporate predators from cashing in on further horror — and to prevent successive Australian governments from outsourcing the blame — more noise is urgently needed.



Meg MundellMeg Mundell is a Melbourne-based writer and social researcher. The Trespassers (UQP, August 2019) is her new novel.

Main image: Shamindan Kanapathi, pictured with one of the camp dog puppies from Manus Island. Published with permission.

Topic tags: Meg Mundell, Paladin, Manus Island, Nauru, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

It needs to be stated that this is nothing new and that our media in general are so much more terrified of Australian immigration ministers than they are war zones so they don't bother to go into the rancid murderous prisons.
Marilyn | 21 August 2019

Politics today is all about money, mates and staying in the "house" Ken Hayne was right Parliament has lost the respect of the electors,what we need is a Federal ICAC, that will never happen, as all Parties have too much to lose
Paul Tocchini | 22 August 2019

Plausible deniability is what an Australian Government Minister wants. I've heard senior public servants say: We are here to serve our political masters. With an attitude like that I have heard the head of an agency ask his Pricipal Legal Officer: Can I do this under the Act? To which the PLO replied: Do you want to do it? The Act can be interpreted that way. Of course there is no record of this conversation. Not even a note for file. Plausible deniability is achieved.
Uncle Pat | 22 August 2019

Congratulations, Meg, on a well researched and written article. I was ignorant of the breadth and depth of the corruption relating to these companies up till now. I am even more ashamed of our government than hitherto and can see no way forward with the detention issue. That we have an ostensibly "Christian" PM associated with this inhumanity just beggars belief.
Henri | 22 August 2019

Thanks Meg for an illuminating and analytical article. Home Affairs is a tainted portfolio and Manus and Nauru have proved useful to the LNP as scapegoats to support the LNP claim that the innocent folk incarcerated there are an ongoing threat to Australia's internal security. There have been a number of assignments of the security contracts. The only common denominator is that the LNP pays hundreds of millions every year to keep the problem out of sight and out of mind. Despite little evidence to support the claim, both Scomo and Dutton purport to be Christians when it suits them. Now David Coleman is in charge of immigration. Bomana and Paladin are the continuation of a weeping sore. However expecting the LNP ministers to develop a humanitarian conscience at this stage is akin to expecting China's fourth Reich to relinquish control of Tibet, the reefs and attols of the South China sea, and Australia's Antarctic Territory.
Francis Armstrong | 22 August 2019

Thanks Meg, How sickening is this mess! Now Morrison is trying to supress dissent in the Public Service.What he forgets is that the Public Service is the servant to the people, represented by the Parliament , not the ruling politicians, who think they have unfretted right to rule, often roughshod over the Parliament. While I respect the right of Government to ask Public Servants to exercise professionalism and integrity in their work, to slap down their rights as voters to express a personal opinion is repressive. Sadly democracy is slowly being eroded in this country as many voters are sleep walking. We must avoid the "I'm all right Jack" mode.
Gavin A. O'Brien | 22 August 2019

Wow. I cannot believe this also happens in your part of the world. I have seen so many similar actions in the American system. Underpaid workers, odd methods to coerce people into lobbying for more restrictive housing, hidden shelters that are glamorized by the news media. I wonder how people on the mainland could help sponsor a project to help Shamindan work with the animals? What are the other dreams of people on the island?
Ryn Edmnd | 23 August 2019

This article is inaccurate in a number of respects that I have personal knowledge of, which makes me wonder about those that I don’t. Wilson’s Security is still a contractor in Nauru and the camps there have closed. There are plenty of unconscionable things that can be said about the system bit factual inaccuracies aren’t helpful.
Ben | 24 August 2019


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