As part of the refugee and asylum seeker policy embedded in the Labor party’s 2007 national platform and constitution, the party pledged:

* The length and conditions of detention must be subject to review and detention centres managed by the public sector.

Despite this, today UK services company Serco’s Australian subsidiary, Serco Australia, begins to phase in its control over seven detention centres. The Villawood, Maribyrnong, Darwin and Perth centres, and three centres on Christmas Island, will be run by Serco. Transition from existing service provider Global Solutions Ltd  (now G4S) will commence in July, and is expected to be completed by November.

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In 2006 the former government announced it would not extend G4S’s $300 million contract when it expired at the end of 2007, and all detention services would be retendered.

The Age reported in January that at the time, “Labor criticised the decision and said the contract with G4S should be terminated and the centres returned to government control so there was a clear line of responsibility back to the minister.”

“This is the private company that has people coming in the doors with no mental health problems and going out as broken human beings,” then Labor immigration spokesman Tony Burke said. “There is one answer and one answer alone, and that is there have been enough breaches of this contract for the government to take action to terminate the privatisation of our detention centres. It was a bad idea from the start. It should not have taken place. It should not be continued.”

The $370 million, five-year contract with Serco may be extended for a further four years. According to Dow Jones, Serco will manage and operate seven adult immigration detention centres and provide national and international transport and escort services from Australia.

The private company pledges “to provide greater focus on well-being of people and seek to improve operation of centres, including improvements to the standard of living skills and English language education programmes.”

But two months ago, the UK Children’s Services Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green released a damning report on detention of children in Yarl’s Wood Immigration detention centre, operated by Serco.

The Independent UK reported in April:

Around 2,000 children a year are held in immigration centres – half in Yarl’s Wood, which has been run by a private company, Serco, since 2007. The experience they described is prison in all but name. Politicians, immigration experts and doctors last night called for an end to the detention of children and for urgent measures to ensure other detainees are treated humanely.

The report, based on the most recent inspection by Sir Al, reveals that basic safeguards for children in Yarl’s Wood are failing. Welfare issues raising “serious concern” were ignored, with children forced to remain in custody even when they were seriously ill or in danger from parents with mental health problems, the report says. It also criticises

The controversial GSL, (now G4S), was recently named on Four Corners in connection with the death of ‘Mr Ward’, who overheated in a van under two guards’ watch.

As The Canberra Times reports:

Immigration Minister Chris Evans defended the about-face which led to Serco being awarded the five-year contract.

He said a tender process to run the centres had been begun by the Howard government in March 2006 and pulling out would have ”exposed the Commonwealth to potential compensation claims from the tenderers. There is also an absence of alternative public service providers”.

But case studies from Yarl’s Wood Immigration detention centre do not bode well:

Sir Al found major healthcare shortcomings at the centre, describing safeguards, records and professionalism as inadequate and below NHS standards. He reports that two children with sickle cell disease were not allowed to bring their penicillin with them when they were seized from their homes. As a result they became seriously ill and required urgent treatment. Instead of being referred to hospital for intravenous fluids and antibiotics they were simply given paracetamol. Under the NHS this would be categorised as a life-threatening “Serious Untoward Incident”.

Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. One diabetic child had three emergency treatments in the 24 days she was detained – including two occasions where her blood sugar left her “un-rousable” – but was still not released. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.

Meanwhile, following from Crikey‘s children in detention story on Monday, Crikey received this tip:

As acknowledged by DIAC’s own website in their weekly detention snapshot statistics, “community” detention is defined as including “detention in the community with a designated person in private houses / correctional facilities / watch houses /hotels / apartments / foster care / hospitals.” (see here — please note the definition of “community detention” is noted in the footnote).

Those few children who are subject to “residential determination” orders are the only ones living in the “community”. On Christmas Island — children are not held in the Christmas Island Detention Centre (the new expensive detention centre). But they are held in the Chistmas Island Detention Facility which is situated at Phosphate Hill — this is the old detention centre.

While they do attend school, children and their parents are not free to come and go as they please. There is nothing “community” about the “community detention” where the majority of children are held.

The detention staff consider this site to be “detention”, and in fact, it is detention is every sense of its character, bar the naming of it as “community detention”, which in the context of the conditions under which they are held, holds little credibility as more than a legitimating tactic so as to maintain rhetorical compliance with the Labor government’s commitment not to hold children in immigration detention.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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