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The Limits of the Gulag


Australia’s Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, is no anthropologist. Nor is his government, which prefers the philosophy of hobgoblins to constructive policy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s officials are finding the running of their semi-colonial processing centres for asylum seekers difficult – they (they, being the aspiring unwashed of the Refugee Convention) keep coming, and the police installations are incapable of keeping them under control.

The asylum seekers Canberra long to keep on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, are not having a bar of it. They are tired. They are angry, and they are disgusted. The message that they receive is that Australia will not accept their claims, even if they are legitimately found to be refugees. The ludicrous suggestion is that they will find residence in PNG, a country with a vast array of social and institutional problems. The dysfunctional environment is ripe for revolt, and the Australians are hoping that PNG officers and foreign contractors will be their handy mercenaries.

The unrest at the detention centre on Manus Island had been building up. For several days, the detainees breached fences, both external and internal. Views on the build up of disaffected violence vary, with suggestions that the detainees did not instigate it, but were merely responding to attacks being made by PNG police and locals from outside the centre.

The violence peaked on Monday. Shots were fired. There was a fatality. 77 people suffered injuries, 13 seriously. Accounts vary – security firm G4S had to retreat from the compound, leaving local police, and an unconfirmed number of locals to “move in”. Sources suggesting that shooting took place on entering the compound contradict the record of the immigration minister. According to Morrison, “G4S were able to protect critical infrastructure and take control of the facility within the centre without the use of batons.” G4S further claims that any claims of “internal attacks” are unfounded.

Refugee advocates have given various accounts of mass violence orchestrated by machetes and knives. Refugee Rights Action Network’s Victoria Martin may have been ramping the rhetoric up with her suggestion that it was a “massacre”, but the impact was felt by inmates. Ghulam Mustasa, one of the detainees, had rung his brother at 11.40 pm. He was filled with terror, claiming “they will kill us”.

G4S, the British company dealing with security assumes itself to be on par with the British or Dutch East Indies Company, a thug operating with a degree of impunity across Asia and the Middle East. Its website calls it, “The world’s leading international security solutions group.” Its primary aim is “Securing Your World.”

The company has had enough difficulty being secure about itself. It has proven to have a ravenous appetite for scandal. It is being investigated by the UK Serious Fraud Office over two contracts. Last November, it admitted to overcharging the UK taxpayer to the tune of £24.1 million for tagging dead criminals. That charming bungle added to its less than ordinary performance during the London 2012 Olympics (The Independent, Feb 18).

The security firm has proven to be incompetent and brutal. A whistleblower within its ranks came forth last July, outlining to the Australian SBS program Dateline instances of sexual assault within the facility. An independent review followed, one which found wide spread instances of self-harm, protestation and lip sewing (The Guardian, Nov 1, 2013).

Last January, G4S guards were found mocking an asylum seeker who had swallowed a pair of nail clippers. The messages were posted on Facebook. “Merry Christmas all,” came the comment from one of the guards, Darren Powell. “One of these jokers just swallowed a pair of nail clippers” (The Guardian, Jan 31). Another employee, the very suitable named Jason Drain, had a wish. “I want to be his escort to the shitter when he passes them.” It is with scant comfort that three of those guards no longer work with the firm – G4S could, at best, reproach them for having misused social media platforms.

The conduct of the security company has cost it its contract over running the centre. That said, it has secured and retained its full fee – according to two separate contracts with AusTender, an amount totalling $240 million (The Guardian, Feb 5). So much for the rigours provided by the law of contract.

Morrison has shown no inkling that he, or the Australian authorities, can manage the centre with its bubbling rage and its accumulating brutalities. The processing system for asylum seekers, a brutal policy that insists on expelling arrivals to far flung centres in Manus and Nauru, is unravelling. It will take more than tenders to security companies to resolve this unnecessary humanitarian calamity. Australia does, after all, retain a non-delegable duty of care under refugee law. The Abbott government, like its predecessors, is yet to notice.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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