On Thursday evening I attended a a presentation by refugee activists who had just returned from the Leonora Detention Centre in outback Western Australia. On 21-23 January 2011 a group of 30 citizens from the WA based Refugee Rights Action Network traveled to the Leonora Detention Centre in outback Western Australia to protest Australia's mandatory detention policy and express solidarity and support for the 206 people (including 55 children) detained inside (press reports of the events are here, here, here, here and here). Friday's West Australian carried this report of the visit.
It was moving to hear from three 17 year old women just out of high school who went to Leonora to see first hand the policy of mandatory detention so they could educate and inform their friends about the cruelty of Australia's immigration detention system. Stories were told of the petty bureaucracy and purposeful cruelty of Serco (the corporation that runs the immigration detention system) and DIaC (the Federal Department responsible for implementing government policies). And of a police presence that at times outnumbered the number of citizens.
The role of the multi-national corporation Serco is a great source of frustration, distress and outrage among those who visited Leonora. People spoke about allegations of bullying, harassment and intimidation from Serco guards towards detainees and cited evidence of serious psychological trauma amongst detainees. Activists claimed that allegations of abuse and harassment against a particular guard had been ignored by Serco management.
People expressed outrage that Serco is not just oblivious to and unconcerned about the trauma being knowingly inflicted on already traumatized children, men and women, but that it continues to make substantial profit out of its imposition of cruelty and its arbitrary use of force and intimidation on traumatized people.
If the infliction of purposeful cruelty on people for profit is not bad enough, refugee activists also describe attempts by the Department and Serco to restrict, conceal and silence press reporting of what goes inside detention centres. Serco and DIaC manipulate and control access to the media and civil society groups and volunteers. Pressure is bought to bear on newspapers and journalists not to write about events or claims made by asylum seeker. The Department has recently lodged a complaint against a journalist from the West Australian who interviewed an asylum seeker involved in the Christmas Island tragedy.
A recent editorial in the Northern Territory Times commented:
As Antony Loewenstein has correctly pointed out Serco continues to escape serious scrutiny for its role in creating and intensifying the crises in Australia's immigration detention facilities. But that is changing and hopefully the courageous and committed actions of refugee activists around Australia and activist journalists like Anthony Loewenstein will shine the light on Serco, the multinational corporation that exemplifies all that is wrong with corporate capitalism."The Federal Government’s attempt to gag journalists reporting on asylum seekers in the Territory is contemptible – and laughable. Contemptible because it is undemocratic; laughable because it won’t work. Canberra has told the NT News it broke the law by speaking to an asylum seeker. It also said a complaint had been lodged with the police. It turns out that both these things are untrue. It seems that the federal Immigration Department has resorted to threats, bully-boy tactics and deceit in a bid to prevent coverage of a news story embarrassing to itself. As it is, secrecy already surrounds asylum seekers and the way they are handled in the Territory".
Serco survive and prosper because they operate in the shadows and are successful at concealment. One thing the refugee activists who go into detention facilities highlight is the huge gap between the way Serco presents itself publicly (its public image and persona), and the cruely, petty bureaucracy, intimidation and profit gouging that they engage in behind the scenes inside their operations. Their actions and operations, usually hidden from view, are completely at odds with the way they present themselves publicly.
That is their achilles heel. Exposure of their dark underbelly is the thing all corporations try to prevent. And more so when it comes to a corporation who aspires to run more public assets and provide public services. (Over 90% of Serco's income comes from the public purse). It is information gathered by citizens and civil society that contradicts its carefully crafted public image and exposes the ways Serco really operates, that will turn public opinion against them and their government backers.
In Western Australia there is increasing scrutiny of Serco, not just because of its treatment of asylum seekers, but also because of its growing role in delivering and managing more and more privatized public services and public assets on behalf of the people of Western Australia.
A unions led civil society campaign is being run against the awarding of an immensely profitable contact to Serco by the Barnett Government to run public hospital services at the iconic Fiona Stanley Hospital being built in Perth's southern suburbs. As the Barnett Government's radical privatization agenda gathers momentum, there is growing concern that Serco will win more contracts in areas such as hospitals, health, prison transport, adult prison and juvenile detention facilities, transport services, traffic cameras and human services.
And as Liberal Party politicians and lobbyists meet behind the scenes with key Serco figures and publicly advocate and privately lobby for Serco, questions are being asked about Serco's links with the WA Liberal Party and State Liberal Parliamentarians.