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Refugee detention centres: breaking hearts and breaking the bank

By Louise Humpage - posted Thursday, 1 July 2004

We have heard many heart-breaking stories from refugees who have been detained in one of Australia’s seven mainland and four off-shore detention centres.  We have seen the damning conclusions of a report produced in May 2004 by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission following its National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.  It is clear that the federal government’s detention policy is inhumane, a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and fails to comply with the United Nations Refugee Convention.

But we now have evidence that the Commonwealth government has also failed to keep promises it has made about ensuring that tax payer money is used efficiently and effectively. The Auditor-General released the first instalment of its "Management of the Detention Centre Contracts report on 18 June 2004.  It documents how the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has been woefully lax in addressing the downright appalling performance of the Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) service that has, until February this year, been in charge of running Australia’s detention centres.

The idea of performance management has become critical to the Australian Public Service in recent years. In 2001 the Commonwealth government’s Management Advisory Committee stated that performance management aims to “improve organisational performance by linking and aligning individual, team and organisational objectives and results. It also provides a means to recognise and reward good performance and to manage under-performance”. This emphasis on performance management has seeped through all aspects of governments and encompasses all agencies - including small, non-profit agencies that run on the smell of an oily rag - who receive government funding.


The Auditor-General’s report indicates that DIMIA failed to conduct systematic risk analysis, evaluation, treatment and monitoring of the services delivered by ACM.  Indeed, several years into the contract, DIMIA had still not developed and documented a strategy for its detention function, nor put in place a contract management plan. As a result, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) suggests that changing service requirements were negotiated on an ad hoc basis.  Even more troubling is that DIMIA’s analysis of the many complaints made by detainees - which documented alleged physical and verbal assaults by ACM staff, inappropriate handcuffing and food contamination, for example - failed to identify systematic issues that required attention.  In fact, DIMIA’s analysis did not measure or assess the quality of ACM’s standard of service delivery at all. 

This is not wholly surprising, given that virtually no research was conducted into the management of detention services to provide a sound basis for evaluating the effectiveness of the services delivered by ACM. Worse, DIMIA did not even bother to identify and document the risks associated with private provision of detention services before the ACM contract was awarded, even though evidence from overseas suggested that the risks were huge.  Instead, it paid ACM more than half a billion dollars over six years for doing what we can now see was an inadequate job. 

So why was ACM treated differently to the thousands of other profit and non-profit agencies that the Commonwealth government contracts to provide services?  Why did DIMIA do such a bad job at ensuring that not only were detainees given the respect and dignity they deserved but that the use of government funds was effectively monitored? 

The answer lies in comments made by DIMIA on-site business managers interviewed by ANAO. These managers indicated that they were reluctant to intervene in some issues in detention centres, in case the intervention had the effect of moving responsibility for the action from ACM to the Commonwealth.  Turning its back on the reality inside detention centres by inadequately monitoring the performance of ACM’s service delivery appears to have been another tactic of the government in distancing itself from its responsibilities.  Certainly, the current federal government prefers to pass the blame, as the recent denial of involvement in the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq demonstrates.  But, putting aside such old-fashioned issues such as human rights and social justice, surely we as tax payers deserve more for our dollar?

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About the Author

Louise Humpage is a researcher at the Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT University.

Related Links
Australian National Audit Office
Australiasian Correctional Management
Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indignous Affairs
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