Offshore detention was destined to fail and the collapse might be closer than you think

Offshore detention was destined to fail and the collapse might be closer than you think

The piece was first published by the The Guardian

Australia’s offshore camps are a house of cards. They’re unsustainable and liable to collapse amid increasing corporate aversion to complicity in abuse, legal uncertainty and human despair. 

The arrangements rest precariously on four pillars: corporate complicity in abuse; legal and regulatory frameworks that allow innocent people to be warehoused indefinitely; the public’s willingness to accept deliberate cruelty to innocent people; and bipartisan political support.

After years of uncertainty, hopelessness and abuse in the camps, only the final pillar holds strong and even the collusion of our major parties can’t avert the looming chaos.

Confronted with mounting risks and liabilities, Ferrovial, the Spanish multinational that runs the camps on Nauru and Manus, has committed not to retender when its current contract expires. The contract was to end in February next year, but the Australian government recently extended it for a further eight months. Now Ferrovial must either exit the camps, or become mired in material risk – including operational uncertainty, exposure to legal action and the devastation of its reputation – until October 2017.

Ferrovial’s financial stakeholders have also come under fire. A recent report released by the Human Rights Law Centre and GetUp’s No Business in Abuse campaign reveals the global banks and corporate investors linked to the offshore camps through their relationship with Ferrovial, and calls on them to take immediate action to end the business relationships that associate them with gross human rights abuse.

Already the Norwegian Central Bank, which holds a stake in Ferrovial, has acknowledged the potential for an ethical problem and referred the issue to Norway’s Council on Ethics for an independent judgment. This response will sound a warning to Ferrovial’s prospective successors: business in abuse will hurt you.

Ferrovial’s decision to walk away ought to deter any company considering profiting from human suffering. The government’s decision to unilaterally extend the offshore contract despite Ferrovial’s clear indication that it does not want to continue its work in the camps certainly suggests that the market is not crowded with contractors eager to step into Ferrovial’s shoes.

Cracks are also appearing in the legal framework underpinning the arrangements. The highest court in PNG recently ruled that the Manus centre is illegal and PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill has conceded it must end. It took retrospective legal changes and a last minute opening of the gates to fend off a similar legal challenge we made to the detention facility on Nauru.

The PNG supreme court is currently considering exactly how it will enforce its own orders. It has demanded answers from the Australian and PNG governments about resettlement plans for the 900 men still languishing in limbo. Our government will pretend that everything is fine but something has clearly got to give. PNG sovereignty, so often used as a shield by successive Australian governments to deflect criticism of the Manus camp, is poised to become the sword, striking a blow to the core of the current detention arrangements.

Finally, slowly but surely, public opinion is shifting. During the recent #LetThemStay campaign we saw the faces of 37 babies born in Australia but facing deportation to Nauru. These kids have never set foot on a boat but are classified by our laws as if they arrived on one, meaning they face mandatory deportation to a tiny island. Also at risk were men violently beaten on Manus, women who had been sexually assaulted on Nauru and over 50 children, many of whom had been going to Australian schools and were beginning to rebuild their lives in our communities.

The response to their plight was phenomenal. We saw doctors risk jail to speak out. Over 100 churches around Australia opened their doors to offer sanctuary. Teachers and school principals took a stand on behalf of their students at risk of being ripped from classrooms and returned to Nauru. Tens of thousands of people around Australia simultaneously took to the streets to demand compassion. So the trajectory of public opinion is clear. People are realising that the status quo is unsustainable, cruel and fundamentally wrong.

Pressure is clearly building. Rather than waiting for the current system to collapse the Turnbull government must look at innovative, humane policy alternatives. And they do exist – instead of using costly and cruel measures to close unsafe pathways, we could look at smart ways of opening up new ones. Measures which improve conditions in transit countries and re-allocate skilled migration places to skilled people who are also seeking asylum should be considered.

The Manus and Nauru camps are dead ends, not long-term solutions. Built on a foundation of deliberate cruelty and cynical political expediency, they have always been destined to fail.

Rachel Ball is the Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.

Daniel Webb is the Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.