This week, on Wednesday and Thursday, the Australian High Court will hear a submission by the Human Rights Law Centre that Australia’s offshore processing of asylum-seekers is illegal. If the court rules in favour of the submission – and assuming the Government loses any appeal to this ruling – then the outcome will see the programme ended, the offshore processing centres closed and the likelihood of claims of illegal imprisonment by current and past detainees. This case also comes only a matter of weeks before the new contract to manage the Nauru and Manus Island centres is awarded, with Transfield (now rebranded Broadsprectrum?) named last month as ‘preferred bidder’.
(Note: appendices at end of article lists all of Transfield equity holders, its major investors, its subsidiary companies and those companies in which Transfield itself holds equity.)
UPDATE: ahead of the Court hearing the Nauru Government (in consultation with the Australian Govt) has declared that the entire island state is now a prison. The declaration – a panicked reaction to this week’s court hearing – will mean that asylum-seekers, even if provided with refugee status, while ‘free to roam’ the island will be restricted in what they do and will, of course, be prohibited from leaving the island. There is also the ongoing hostility by many Naureans to the asylum-seekers presence.
In recent tweets leading lawyers Julian Burnside and Greg Barns separately confirmed that the asylum-seekers detained come under Australian law, given that it is Australia that is funding their detention. Significantly, the Senate Committee that conducted the Inquiry into abuse at Nauru detention centre also found that Australia – not Nauru – is legally responsible for the abuses in Nauru detention centre, because it has “effective control” of it. “Australia created the regional processing centre in Nauru. It is Australia’s responsibility and in its present form, it is insupportable.”
In pure business terms, the detention centre at Nauru and at Manus Island are the end ‘product’ in a supply-chain of what many would argue is illegal activity that begins with the Australian Navy & Customs highjacking boats on the open seas, kidnapping their passengers, then imprisoning them on the offshore gulags.
A. Transfield’s role in gulag supply chain
Transfield, which manages both these centres, is a company that is the beneficiary of many other Government contracts and which itself has many subsidiary companies or holds substantial equity in companies that affect almost every aspect of Australian society. In 2014, for example, Transfield won a $A190m broadband contract. Also last year Transfield secured a contract to manage Australian Defence facilities across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia under the Defence Support Reform Group’s Base Services Retendering project (the initial contract term is for six years with an annualised value of $270m). These are just two examples of many, many more. Further details on their contracts and subsidiaries can be found in Transfield’s annual report. Altogether Transfield employs over 19,000 people across 20 industries and 10 countries.
Last week Transfield issued to its shareholders a letter announcing its rebranding exercise. The letter brushes over the scores of allegations of abuse that have taken place at both the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. Transfield claims that these allegations have been dealt with properly, though fail to point out that no independent authority was involved in looking into these claims and that Australian lawyers were excluded from these processes. In the letter Transfield mentions reviews by eminent international bodies, but omits to point out that these reviews, particularly that by the UN High Commissioner, were damning. In other words, this letter is merely a PR exercise to try and win over shareholders who may be thinking of jumping ship after the months and months of allegations of abuse were made public.
In March of this year the United Nations Special Rapportuer on Torture found that various aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies violated the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The findings from the Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, were formally submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. Daniel Webb, of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), said that the report’s findings made it clear that the Australian Government’s actions breach international law. “The Government always assures the Australian people that it complies with its international human rights obligations. But here we have the United Nations once again, in very clear terms , telling the Government that Australia’s asylum seeker policies are in breach of international law”. The UN report found that Australia’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island, the harsh conditions, the frequent unrest and violence inside the centre and the failure to protect certain vulnerable individuals all amount to breaches of the Convention.
The UN postponed a planned visit to Australia this month because the Australian Government would not guarantee legal protection for detention centre workers who wanted to discuss conditions faced by asylum seekers. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, explained the Border Force Act, which makes it a crime for immigration and border protection workers to disclose information about offshore detention centres and threatens them with imprisonment, “serves to discourage people from fully disclosing information relevant to my mandate”.
During Transfield’s current contract period managing the detention centres there have been 300 cases of children committing or threatening self-harm, 67 cases of child abuse, 33 cases of rape or sexual assault of asylum seekers, 200 cases of assault and 30 cases of abuse against Australian staff – and that’s just on Nauru. Transfield’s sub-contractor – Wilson Security – have additionally been accused of handcuffing children and assaulting asylum seekers and much, much more.
B. Legal chalenge to Australian Govt
The lead case being brought by the Human Rights Law Centre this week in the High Court is on behalf of a woman from Bangladesh who was brought to Australia due to a serious deterioration in her health during the late stages of pregnancy but is now facing imminent return to Nauru with her ten month old baby. “Australia should not be indefinitely warehousing people on remote islands, especially babies. The family is absolutely terrified of being forced back to an environment that we know is harmful and that we know is unsafe, particularly for women and children,” said Mr Daniel Webb of HRLC. The case is linked to a series of challenges being run on behalf of more than 200 people in similar situations who have been brought to Australia from Nauru and Manus for various reasons including urgent medical attention.
The HRLC initially lodged a case against the Australian Government earlier this year, in May, arguing that there was no Australian law that gave the Government the powers to fund and facilitate the current offshore detention arrangements. The then Abbott-led government’s response was to introduce, with the help of the Labor Opposition, an emergency law that it thought would plug any loophole and which would retrospectively authorise three years of offshore detention and the expenditure of several billion dollars for that purpose, but left open a high court challenge to the constitutionality of the Government’s role in offshore detention.
Daniel Webb has previously commented that aggrieved asylum-seekers have every right to complain to the UN Human Rights Committee, which administers the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rig and that a case could be made, separately, at the UN against indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Islands in Australian-run centres.
A legal case led by Ruth Hudson of Stacks Goudkamp, raises similar legal issues in respect of the Manus detention centre, but has been adjourned pending the outcome of the Nauru challenge. It has also been reported that legal firm Maurice Blackburn are considering, seoarately, representing victims of alleged abuse at Manus Island in a class action to seek damages: if this litigation succeeds, that would undoubtedly encourage scores, if not hundreds of other claims regarding abuse, illegal detention, etc.
Appendix: listing of all Transfield equities, shareholders and subsidaries
(To see details, click on image then enlarge.)
A. Equity security holders
B. Major shareholders
C. Companies in which Transfield holds equity