The Australian government’s decision to re-open the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia has attracted predictable outrage from previous detainees and refugee groups but missing from the media coverage was any mention of who will run the facility.

British multinational Serco is in charge of the remote, one-time Australian air force base, having won a contract in June last year to manage all of Australia’s immigration centres. After the successful bid of $370 million for five years work, Serco Australia chief executive David Campbell said that “the government’s new immigration detention values very much align with Serco’s own values”.

Labor pledged before the 2007 election to place the detention centres back in public hands.

A spokesman from the Immigration Department told Crikey that when the original contract was signed in 2009 between Serco and the Australian government, the possibility of opening new detention centres was not discussed but he was optimistic the company would comply with the new demands.

When asked about the sexual and psychological trauma suffered by detainees and guards at Curtin during the Howard years, the spokesman said that “policy settings” were different under the Rudd government and more accountability was now possible. No evidence was given for this claim. Curtin was chosen to keep the asylum seekers because “the infrastructure is already there and it’s the best option to house people. It will stay open as long as necessary”.

Serco has received negative press in Britain after cases of neglect emerged from inside its privately run prisons and detention centres. Before Christmas last year the company was embarrassed after guards at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre refused entry to Anglican ministers dressed as Santa Claus who wanted to give gifts to the children inside. They were regarded as a “security threat”.

Britain’s Children Commissioner released a damning report in April 2009 that found systemic failures of treatment at Yarl’s Wood, violent handling of children and ignoring of serious mental health problems.

But Serco’s contract with the Australian government helped the company’s profits soar 34% in the first half of the year. The organisation is valued at about $5 billion.

“There are more opportunities than we are able to bid for,” said chief executive Christopher Hyman in February. Out-sourcing of government services are booming, especially in Britain.

Hyman, an Indian Pentecostal Christian from South Africa, told the Guardian in 2006 that he was “very passionate about our values and building this company not to make a profit. If you can make it have an impact on society, people’s lives and make it fun, crumbs, then we don’t have to worry about making this profit or that.”

In Australia, concerns over Serco’s management of Curtin are rising. Crikey spoke to UNSW law lecturer Mike Grewcock, author of the book Border Crimes, who said that the lack of judicial oversight of the detention centre was worrying. “In 2001, the then Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia described detainees as living ‘in gulag conditions’ and argued that if it had been an ordinary jail the prisoners would not have tolerated such conditions.”

Grewcock acknowledges that the previous company running Curtin no longer manage the centre but “the fundamental relationship between the Immigration Department and the private operators remains the same. The department locks up refugees in circumstances it knows will cause extensive anguish and harm and pays multinational security corporations to make sure the centres operate ‘efficiently’. It is a morally indefensible arrangement.”

Serco was recently fined by the Immigration Department after three Chinese nationals escaped from the Villawood detention centre.

Former Curtin detainee and now Australian citizen, Iranian-born Farshid Kheirollahpoor, says that the relationship between the Howard government and then private manager of Curtin about 2000, ACM, was unhealthy. “ACM realised that they could take financial advantage of the emotional distress in the centre, ” he said. “ACM could ask for more guards and deliberately not manage the problems. The government would then offer more funds.”

Kheirollahpoor saw ACM guards often drunk and beat and abuse detainees. He says the company “wanted to allow the demonisation of refugees and force asylum seekers to act in a way that would make the Australian people hate them”.

Crikey made repeated calls to Serco seeking comment on their exact role at Curtin but no response was forthcoming.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

Peter Fray

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