(Image: Wikimedia)

When Sri Lankan asylum seekers Priya, Nades and their two girls faced a late-night deportation attempt in August, supporters of the family began scanning flights to Colombo, hoping to launch a hail-Mary protest and block their removal.

While early reports suggested they might be flown on a Qantas jet, activists soon found their target — a private plane at a small hangar on the edge of Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne.

The plane belonged to Skytraders, a charter company that has made a healthy profit moving and deporting asylum seekers for the Department of Home Affairs. But that lucrative relationship may have come at a reputational cost for Skytraders, a company accused of complicity in a punitive deportation regime.

Before being detained on Christmas Island and in onshore centres, deportee Paul* worked as a commercial pilot in Australia, and tells Inq he once “held Skytraders in very high regard as an aviation operation”. This only added to his “disgust and disappointment” when he learned that “such an esteemed aviation operator had taken up a contract with Home Affairs to ferry (and also deport) immigration detainees”.

“As an ex-commercial pilot, I know what I would have been thinking/feeling at the sight of 30-odd detainees all sitting quietly in manacles,” Paul says. “It would go against my grain morally, and operationally from the perspective of in-flight safety … restrained passengers are vulnerable in emergency situations; be it bracing for impact (manacles will break your wrists), inability to put lifejackets on, decreased mobility evacuating aircraft and/or using emergency slides.

“To my dismay, I saw no such concern on the faces of the operating crew [during my detention], and that I must say disgusts me.”

Founded in 1979, Skytraders was initially known for shipping chilled meat and, from 2002, transporting Australian scientists to Antarctica. During the 2010 federal election, it even provided then-prime minister Julia Gillard’s campaign plane

Also in 2010, Skytraders entered its first contract with the then-named department of immigration and citizenship. Since then, the company’s contracts with the department and its successors have totalled more than $280.85 million.

Right away, the company began to demonstrate the secrecy which characterises much of the immigration detention system; trying to block its flights to Nauru and Christmas Island from the publicly-accessible Flightaware tracking system. Ironically, the company would receive far greater publicity after its A319 appeared in a 2014 cartoon designed by the Abbott government to deter asylum seekers.

A cartoon created by the Abbott government to deter asylum seekers (Image: Australian Border Force)

Detainees told Inq the Skytraders experience is tantamount to a “flying prison”. People are woken by Serco guards as early as 3am for a “mystery flight”, with no advance notice, explanation or destination provided. After 15 minutes for packing and with phones removed they are bussed to a hangar. Almost always they are handcuffed throughout the flight.

Guards, at least two per detainee, then form a line from the bus to the plane, and detainees are radioed through one at a time. 

Routes run continuously to pick up or drop off people; Paul points to a 14-hour flight from Christmas Island via Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Detainees remain strapped in immovable chairs, flanked by two guards and bound by handcuffs, even during toilet breaks

It was after a 2018 Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane-Darwin-Perth trip on this “flying Guantanamo Bay” that Pakistani migrant Nauroze Anees, a detainee for four years, alleges he developed chronic abdominal pain.

“On the Skytraders plane, they make me sit on the window seat, while two other officers would sit with me,” Anees tells Inq via encrypted software. “The Skytraders seats can’t be moved, so have to sit handcuffed in an upright position, for the duration of the whole day, almost 20 hours, without any relief, Serco wouldn’t take the cuffs off, even when I had to use the washroom.

“It was extremely small space, where I was in consistent unbearable pain, handcuffed unable to move, and the body posture they kept me in all combined together had potentially caused me permanent damage.”

A whistleblower for the “cash for visas” controversy, Anees has previously made headlines for serving what Pakistan’s high commission calls an “uncomfortably prolonged detention” under Home Affairs’ “character test” deportation orders.

His abdominal pain has been confirmed by two separate medical reports seen by Inq, one of which notes that “the temporal relationship of the occurrence of the symptoms to the plane journey would be consistent with [Anees’] hypothesis and provide a plausible and reasonable explanation for his problem”.

Over a year into the condition, Anees in currently seeing a pain specialist. He’s in handcuffs, per Serco’s orders.

Neither Australian Border Force (ABF) or Serco provided comment on Anees’ specific case, but his experience on Skytraders is not unusual. 

Immigration lawyers Carina Ford and Greg Barns confirm that Serco and ABF regularly bring people seeking asylum and refugees to court in chains. According to ABF, restraints are used based on a risk assessment determining they are “appropriate and proportionate”, pointing to potential obligations under transport safety legislation.

“Where restraints are used, immediately after they are removed, the detainee is visually inspected for any sign of injury. In all cases, they are also required to undergo a subsequent medical review,” ABF tells Inq.

But detainees say what is most damaging is the process of being moved. ABF regularly moves detainees between centres across Australia, often abruptly, and with no clear rationale. ABF tells Inq this is “based on operational needs”. 

“In making placement decisions, an individual’s medical needs are given priority, and family and community links are carefully considered.”

Paul disagrees, suggesting that moving detainees from centre to centre — often away from family, legal and medical contacts — acts as “a psychological move to break detainees into signing to return to their country of birth”.

For ABF, the great advantage of Skytraders is it allows these successive transfers to happen out of the public eye. Passenger airlines tend to attract greater scrutiny for their role in the deportation business — Qantas, for example, is currently grappling with shareholder resolutions to change its stance, while in Europe, planes have been grounded by activists attempting to stop deportations. 

That extra visibility on Qantas leads to more humane treatment compared to Skytraders, says Anees. On Qantas, he’s allowed to keep his phone, which he uses to contact relatives and lawyers. 

“For a moment of time you feel like you get to live a normal life,” Anees says. “Because they are the people on the plane who are the normal people.” 

Anees and Paul say there is a visible lack of ethical concerns among Skytraders crew members. 

ABF says they use commercial flights “where safe to do so, to minimise the cost to the Australian taxpayer”. When charter flights are used, ABF says it is “to ensure the safety of all parties”, or where “commercial uplift is not granted due to the risk presented”.

But despite concerns about costs, the detention and transfer process is a hugely expensive one. Records obtained by Inq through freedom of information show Home Affairs spent $242.6 million on flights and air transfers of asylum seekers in the last five years.

(Image: Home Affairs)

That cost to the Australian taxpayer has made companies like Skytraders incredibly wealthy. In 2018 it signed a contract through to 2021 totalling $63.9 million. Earlier this year, this figure jumped up to $78.7 million. Neither Skytraders or Home Affairs would confirm what caused the increase.

In any case, the wealth shows. In 2017, Skytraders’ chairman and chief executive Norman Mackay bought a $8.8 million mansion on Sydney’s Point Piper waterfront.

Skytraders did not respond to multiple requests for comment

Peter Fray

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