The current focus on border protection as a matter of security is a fairly recent development. As Tad Tietze discusses, even during the twentieth century there were periods in which large numbers of people were able to freely migrate to Europe, the US and Australia. The US ignored the flow of Mexicans crossing the border after the Second World War. France welcomed undocumented arrivals because they made up for a lack of labour. In the 1960s, the UK passed a law allowing illegal immigrants to stay permanently if they were not apprehended within 24 hours of arrival. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, large numbers of people migrated from less prosperous Eastern European countries and the Third World to Western Europe, the United States and Australia.
Since then there has been a change in the way refugees, and also immigrants within state borders, are viewed. This has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism. The economic globalisation neoliberal policies have brought about have led not only to increased levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment but also increasing nationalism and a focus on securing borders to restrict entry to undesirables – the poor, unskilled and uneducated from the developing world. Immigrants, especially ‘illegals’, became an easy scapegoat during the economic troubles of the 1970s and have remained so until today, creating the conditions for asylum seekers to be framed as a problem requiring a solution.
Since the turn to neoliberalism, governments around the world have been willing to cede power to the private sector through deregulation and privatisation at the expense of their citizens. Yet when it comes to borders, there is only increased regulation and control by the state. Tim Dunlop argues the focus on strong border protection has been brought about by neoliberal policies, which have eroded state power in other areas. It seems logical, then, for governments to now use ‘border protection’ as a way of showing citizens that the state still serves their interests rather than the interests of multinational corporations. But such a view ignores how border protection policies are being implemented.
Upon closer inspection, we are seeing yet another example of neoliberal policies blurring the line between state and corporate power. Attempts to limit the movement of people across borders has actually created new and profitable markets for multinational corporations.
From the United States’ attempts to control the US-Mexico border to Australia’s obsession with stopping the boats, services related to border security and asylum seekers have been shifted to the private sector, along with billions in taxpayer money. Although there is sometimes discussion about the cost of asylum seeker policies in a general sense (or the $30 million burden to taxpayers from the advertisements from Australia’s latest offering in the cruelty arms race), we need to go further to get a better understanding of this industry. We need to ‘follow the money’, so to speak.
Antony Loewenstein highlights the hypocrisy concerning Australia’s outsourcing of detention services:
In 2005, Labor’s then immigration spokesman Tony Burke said detention centres for asylum seekers must never be run by private companies. ‘You shouldn’t have a situation’, he said, ‘where the level of supervision and the standard of care has anything to do with the private profits of an offshore company.’
It seems the ‘situation’ has changed. The ‘asylum market’ is a nice source of private profits for private, offshore corporations, with $8 billion in contracts awarded in 2012. In 2009 Serco, the biggest player in Australia’s asylum industry, held detention contracts worth $323 million. The same contracts have since hit $1.86 billion and come on the back of a 45 per cent increase in profits in 2011. G4S, another big multinational, runs the Manus Island detention centre, which recently made headlines with allegations from a former employee of rape, torture and self-harm at the facility.
Such arrangements seem to be the standard, and not just in Australia. In the UK, G4S provides everything from detention to housing and deportation services.
Rudd and Abbott may disagree on the details of ‘stopping the boats’, but it’s safe to say however it’s done someone stands to make a profit. When the Coalition announced a plan to house 2000 asylum seekers in a ‘tent city’ on Nauru, and it was then revealed Toll (the company providing the tents) funded the trip in the first place, questions were brushed aside because ‘there’s no reason whatsoever why it shouldn’t be funded in that way’.
It also helps that the work performed by companies like Serco and G4S is difficult for the general public to investigate. How much do we know about what is done, who does it, and how much it costs?
The United States spends tens of billions on protecting the US-Mexico border, with contracts going to the same defence contractors who made a killing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coincidentally, of course, they’re awarded at a time when America’s wars in the Middle East are winding down. If there is less demand for drones in Iraq, new markets can be found elsewhere. What better place than the US-Mexico border? The exorbitant amounts become even more questionable because the number of people moving across the border is the lowest it has been for decades. In 2012 just over 350,000 people were captured by border patrol, whereas in 1999 the figure was around 1.5 million.
Border protection here in Australia is already semi-privatised under the Coastwatch program, with the private sector working alongside the Royal Australian Navy and Air Force to secure our borders and stop those boats. Surveillance Australia Pty Ltd provides aerial surveillance services under a contract worth $1 billion, along with another $1 billion contract to Australian Helicopters Pty Ltd. Serco is involved here again, building and operating patrol boats. Gardline Group leases two vessels to Customs and Border Protection, and has recently been contracted to build a new one for duties at Ashmore Island.
But no border is truly secure without some drones – so Australia is looking into ways of spending some money on those too.
Some companies running Australian detention centres are also profiting from the wars that produce some of the asylum seekers in their care. Serco, for example, ranks forty-fifth on the SIPRI arms sales Top 100. There’s also money to be made from the places from which the asylum seekers come and Serco, always looking for ways to help governments out, is there providing military base support and base closure services. G4S, the largest private security company in the world, provides pre-deployment training for the British Army, as well as convoy escort and mine clearance services in Iraq and Afghanistan, after it took over private military contractor Armor Group International in 2008.
As successive governments funnel more and more money to private corporations such as these to provide services related to border protection and asylum seekers, corresponding cuts are made to public health and education services. The irony is that some of the same companies are also able to benefit from cuts to public services. As the non-profit organisation Serco Watch notes, the announcement that a hundred jobs may go at WA’s Bentley Hospital was offered up with the consolation that ‘there will be positions at the new Fiona Stanley Hospital when it is up and running’.
When corporations become so involved in such disparate industries, opportunities arise for unity among diverse groups whose interests may at first seem unrelated. The student suffering from education cuts while billions are spent on detention contracts has something in common with the pro-refugee activist. The nurse facing uncertainty about the future of their job while money is diverted to military contracts, has something in common with the anti-war protester. It’s up to us how we choose to look at these issues. We can continue to view them as unrelated and separate. Or we can see and discuss them for what they are: the consequences of a broader neoliberal agenda that seeks to offer a market solution to every problem, irrespective of the effect on society as a whole.