Immigration services contractor Serco has hit back at whistleblower claims that its transport and escort unit is poorly run and underfunded.

A Serco employee has contacted several media outlets, including Crikey, to claim that recent escapes by immigration detainees while in transit reflect poor or non-existent risk assessment, a lack of experience and understaffing by the Serco unit involved. The whistleblower provided a number of documents to back up the claim, including material on the plans to transport German detainee Carlo Kohl, a thief who escaped, or more accurately walked away, from his escorts while on a stopover in Bangkok on his way back to Germany as part of a voluntary repatriation.

The Bangkok incident may have longer-term implications both for Serco, whose reputation will take a hammering because of the incident, and for Australia, given we rely on transiting detainees through airports such as Bangkok to their return destinations. A Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman said that the Department was awaiting an urgent report from Serco on the incident.

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Among the whistleblower’s claims was that:

  • The transport and escort unit is led by an accountant with no security background.
  • The unit’s “generic cost-effective planning” processes are ineffective: when 24 Vietnamese “clients” were escorted to a medical facility in Darwin, six escaped. Despite a number of earlier escape incidents involving Vietnamese detainees, including two detainees escaping during a church visit a month earlier while four Serco staff stood and waited outside, the visit involving 24 detainees was assessed as “low risk”;
  • Serco staff are untrained and underskilled, and all transport and escort senior managers in Darwin are British Serco employees brought to Australia on 457 visas; and
  • There was no operational plan for the escort of Solomon Baker, a convicted criminal, to a Sydney Hospital, where he escaped and jumped to his death in April.

This isn’t the first time claims of underfunding and undertraining detainee security services staff, or reliance on foreign workers, have been leveled at Serco in relation to its Australian operations; as long ago as 2011, just two years in to its five-year contract, the company was criticised for its poor practices in detention centres. None of the criticism has slowed the company’s growing profits from detention services.

The British company, which has also been at the centre of criticism over its operation of detention centres in the UK, rejected the claims. A spokesman pointed out that in 2012 the company averaged 98.7% compliance against the key performance indicators of its contract. The company provided 280,000 transport services during the year, the spokesman said:

“Our Transport & Escort officers hold a Certificate II in Security Operations and have completed an Induction Training Course for work in Immigration Detention. In addition, specific Transport & Escort training is provided by experienced officers who have qualified as Cert IV trainer assessors through an external RTO. Our training programs meet the obligations outlined in our contract, and our Transport & Escort training was developed in collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.”

The unit’s management team “is led at each level by experienced, well-qualified leaders with relevant backgrounds in security, immigration services, custodial services, logistics and vehicle fleet management”. Four staff members are currently suspended pending investigations, the spokesman said.

The company also rejected the claim that it is dominated by 457 visa holders: “We seek to recruit locally where possible. Less than 1.2% of our immigration services staff are on 457 visas.” Given the company employment of around 5200 people in Australia, this means over 60 staff are on 457 visas.

There’s some broader context for all this, however. Outsourced provision of people management services is now standard in Australia and across most developed countries. Service providers like Serco make large profits from providing services like staffing detention centres and escorting detainees. But the only alternatives are to either find other service providers — and the Immigration Department signed contracts with two previous service providers, and was unhappy with the level of service provided — or to in-source the services. And in-sourcing would need to involve law enforcement personnel (or, possibly, military personnel), not public servants — public servants are not trained in security operations or personal services like the kind required to run a detention centre. It would also cost significantly more.

The challenge will become more acute in years to come as Australia begins funding a higher level of disability services via DisabilityCare. Again, private companies are likely to provide such services, rather than government departments, even through government services like health providers.

Critics might correctly note that some of Serco’s problems have been generated by the dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in detention, and there would be less pressure on service providers if there were fewer detainees. But Australia will always have a problem with illegal immigrants, visa overstayers and criminals requiring deportation, regardless of the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The fact is, there are few alternatives for private service provision. If Serco’s critics have one, you can bet the Immigration Department would be very open to hearing it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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