Paul Stoop, Antony Loewenstein, Foto: Victor Beil

Lecture by Antony Loewenstein

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author. He recently held a lecture at the WZB about governments privatizing the refugee crisis. He discussed this issue with Paul Stoop, Head of the Communication Department,  showing why making money from misery and outsourcing of responsibility is dangerous for the democracy.

Europe and Germany are struggling to cope with an influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Fences and walls, to keep asylum seekers out, are replacing sustainable solutions. The EU is both unwilling and incapable of formulating a sensible response to the crisis. Antony Loewenstein has investigated how governments around the world are increasingly privatizing and warehousing refugees, outsourcing responsibility to companies running detention centers, health care and surveillance drones for profit. Australia, America and Britain are leaders in the field and Europe is now blindly following.

Europe’s refugee crisis is almost entirely self-inflicted. Unprepared for the influx of mostly Middle Eastern and African migrants in the last 12 months, European leaders remain unwilling and incapable of devising a plan to humanely process asylum seekers. Instead, walls and fences are being built across the continent. Surveillance drones are in the air. Political rhetoric demonises Muslims and the vulnerable fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Eritrea. The future of a united European Union is in jeopardy and groups on both the political left and right are imagining a future of national sovereignty instead of collective inertia. Perhaps this should be welcomed.

Private companies are excited about the chaos. Looking to make a profit from the escalating challenges across Europe, immigration detention operators have the perfect opportunity to exploit the crisis. Australia, the United States and Britain have spent years outsourcing their asylum policies to private interests. Human rights abuses are rampant inside the facilities with sexual abuse, poor healthcare and dirty food guaranteed in a system that rewards austerity. After all, why would a corporation spend money on proper training for guards when it would affect its annual earnings?

“Murder, rape and sexual assaults are common and yet the profits keep rolling in”

Australia is the only nation in the world that has privatised all its immigration detention facilities. British multinational Serco runs the centres on the Australian mainland and Australian firm Broadspectrum manages the facilities on the Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Journalists are banned, government employees face persecution in Australia for speaking out against any problems or abuses they witness, murder, rape and sexual assaults are common and yet the profits keep rolling in. Both Serco and Broadspectrum, despite vast evidence detailing their wilful inability to compassionately care for asylum seekers, have received multi-billion contracts from the Australian government.

Many Australians support this system because it’s out of sight and out of mind for them, pushing their fears and hatred about boat people in remote places. Refugees have been so successfully demonised as potential terrorists in the media, one of the many post 9/11 realities across the world, that sympathy for the imprisoned asylum seekers in Australia and offshore is minimal aside from a vocal minority.

In my 2015 book, Disaster Capitalism, I explain today’s political and economic phenomenon:

“Predatory capitalism goes way beyond exploiting disaster. Many ongoing crises seem to have been sustained by businesses to fuel industries in which they have a financial stake. These corporations are like vultures feeding on the body of a weakened government that must increasingly rely on the private sector to provide public services. It is surely arguable that the corporation is now fundamentally more powerful than the nation-state, and that it is often the former that dictates terms to the latter. This represents a profound shift in authority that has taken place over the last half-century. A competing position is that the state and multinationals rely on each other equally, and that companies are only allowed to grow so big by the self-interested largesse of politicians. State oversight is now so weak – often, indeed, non-existent – in both the Western world and developing countries that corporate power can be said to have won.”

A seven-year contract in 2014 was the reward for failure

In Britain, successive governments have outsourced prisons and immigration detention centres to the private sector. Yarl’s Wood, an asylum facility run by Serco, has been embroiled in countless scandals involving mental health problems, pregnant women being imprisoned with inadequate healthcare and sexual assault by guards against detainees. These facts had no impact on David Cameron’s administration awarding Serco a seven-year contract in 2014 to manage the centre. This was the reward for failure.

Across America, the Democrats and Republicans have spent decades privatising the country’s prison and immigrant facilities. Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) are the two largest providers and many of their centres are beset by problems. A culture of mass incarceration, intrinsic to understanding America’s political culture, is a perfect fit for companies that rarely have to answer before Congress. President Barack Obama has accelerated the building of these centres including the largest in the country in Dilley, Texas. Housing women and children, and run by CCA, migrants report lack of access to lawyers, poor food and being far away from their families.

European corporations are looking to other Western nations with envy. While the wars in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq worsen by the day, fuelled by weapons sold by Washington and its allies to militant groups and autocratic regimes, refugees continue coming into Europe. The reasons for their journeys are always the same; fleeing persecution and conflict, genocide and discrimination, gender inequality, quashing of free speech and free association, ISIS sexual slavery and indiscriminate barrel bombs dropped by Syria’s Assad regime in civilian areas.

In Norway and Sweden, the firm Hero Norway is feeding and housing refugees for a fee. Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported:

“For-profits now care for about 90 percent of Norway’s refugees. A gold rush has commenced, and it’s also a bit of a circus. Just outside Oslo, a savvy entrepreneur named Ola Moe recently rented a vacant hospital for $10,000 a month, did minimal upgrades, and began charging the government $460,000 a month to house and feed 200 refugees. At a refugee center in Southern Norway, 50 resident asylum seekers went on a two-hour march in November to protest the poor food, prompting one politician, an Iranian Norwegian named Mazyar Keshvari, to proclaim, ‘These ungrateful people should immediately leave the country.’”

ORS Services, a Swiss corporation, runs refugee facilities in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The UN has reported finding conditions in the centres less than acceptable but governments are so desperate to outsource the migrant crisis, thereby transferring responsibility to corporate players who aren’t answerable to freedom of information requests or parliament.

It’s a democratic deficit at the heart of the asylum crisis but it’s exactly how corporations and governments like it. I’ve reported on the immigration issue for over a decade, in Australia, Britain, America, Greece and beyond, and one recurring theme is privatised refugee policies being far less accountable than publicly-run facilities. Government-managed centres aren’t utopian, abuses can be rampant there, too, but involving the profit motive in the equation guarantees secrecy and mismanagement.

“A key failing of Chancellor Angela Merkel was not providing enough state resources for the job”

The refugee crisis in Europe is the clearest sign yet that its various nation states are tied together more due to geography than belief, reason or ideology. When a major problem hits, like large numbers of asylum seekers crossing European borders, the first response is finding ways to repel them. Although Germany has taken in over one million migrants in the last year, with many more set to arrive in 2016, there’s no coherent plan to manage them. The result is the rise of the far-right, public anger and dwindling backing for a more humanitarian approach. Corporations are called in to save the government’s program.

A key failing of Chancellor Angela Merkel was not providing enough state resources for the job. A Berlin-based journalist told me that volunteers across Germany have been on the frontline in refugee camps, doing the work state employees have not. As volunteers tire of the work and go home, nobody is replacing their labour. The result is migrants facing years in limbo waiting on their asylum claims to be processed.

The disconnect in Europe and many Western nations about the real reasons behind the refugee numbers is instructive. Failed states in the Middle East didn’t implode for no reason. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were destabilised by either Western occupation or outside interference. Syria, the world’s most-deadly conflict, has collapsed due to a toxic combination of Syrian government brutality (backed by Russia and Iran), Saudi Arabian and Qatari funding for ISIS and American arming and funding of extremist militants. Until one side destroys the other, Syrians will continue fleeing for their lives.

Privatising the refugee crisis is a short-term fix for an existential problem. Believing Europe has a plan for a unified future, multicultural and strong, is an illusion currently challenged by the facts. For disaster capitalism to thrive requires desperate governments to outsource their problems to the highest bidder. The result is dehumanising for refugees and citizens who don’t believe that the most vulnerable people on the planet deserve to be key indicators of profit.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe” and WZB Visiting Researcher in Global Governance.

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