Asylum Inc: burgeoning business of detaining the unwanted

In another life, nearly a decade ago, Colonel Chris Manning was the head of Britain's armed forces in Afghanistan. Today he works out of Melbourne as an executive for sprawling multinational G4S, the company contracted to provide security services on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, soon to be home to rising numbers of boat-borne asylum seekers thanks to Kevin Rudd's new hardline policy.

In another life, nearly a decade ago, Colonel Chris Manning was the head of Britain's armed forces in Afghanistan. Today he works out of Melbourne as an executive for sprawling multinational G4S, the company contracted to provide security services on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, soon to be home to rising numbers of boat-borne asylum seekers thanks to Kevin Rudd's new hardline policy.

The former British commander reputedly has a "jump when I say jump" manner, which some believe is just the ticket for the fraught Manus project. Others argue a subtler hand might be better. But either way, G4S - which offers its global clients services ranging from basic guarding to escorts through pirate-infested waters - will be very happy with the cool $80 million the Manus project is bringing its way for eight months' work.

It's the new gold rush if you happen to be in the right line of business. Companies with expertise in remote logistics and accommodation, human services and health, freight and security stand to reap a bonanza from the increase in asylum-seeker arrivals.

The frenzied auction between Labor and the Coalition over who can strike the tougher pose is paying off handsomely for some - and not just in the private sector.

Canberra has bestowed more than $74 million on the Salvation Army to provide succour, as best it can, to the human cargo bound for offshore processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

But that figure pales in comparison with the nearly $1 billion being paid to privately owned International Health and Medical Services, an offshoot of Singapore's International SOS group, which was founded by two Frenchmen, a doctor and a financier.

IHMS had already won federal government contracts worth $44 million between 2006 and 2010 for providing health services to asylum seekers in centres on the Australian mainland.

Its current four-year contract, from 2010 to January next year, has taken a quantum leap in value to $780 million, while the company picks up another $63 million for servicing the health needs of the expected influx into Nauru and Manus.

The figures are already eye-watering, and the full cost of the latest policy changes is yet to be factored in. There are questions, too, about whether the taxpayer is getting value for money. The Immigration Department admits not all the contracts have been put to competitive tender because of the "extreme urgency" of the task.

Rich pickings are also to be had in the construction sector.

Queensland-based Canstruct has contracts worth more than $140 million for work at Nauru. How much higher that figure might go, given the rebuilding needed following last month's destructive riots, is not clear.

Western Australia-based Decmil, a company previously little known outside the mining industry, has picked up a government deal worth at least $150 million to build quarters on Manus Island for an initial 600 asylum seekers and another 200 staff at a permanent site, away from the naval base that is the site of the present tent city. It is the first foray into the lucrative world of federal government contracts for Decmil, which previously made a living constructing villages for fly-in, fly-out mining workers.

"The asylum-seeker camps have come out of left field," says Tom Ellison, an analyst at Wills Financial Group.

"I've never really thought of them as an opportunity for the Decmils of this world. It's a pretty significant industry and because it's all Commonwealth funded, it will be an attractive one," he said.

Operating offshore can be risky for novices though. Manus is a vastly different environment to the remote reaches of mainland Australia, and already reports are trickling back from the island that rival groups of landowners are taking offence at the way the company is conducting local negotiations.

Both Decmil and Canstruct share a similar background, of family businesses built up and passed on. Decmil chief executive Scott Criddle is the son of Dennis Criddle, who started the business in Karratha 30 years ago. Canstruct was founded by one-time bridge engineer Robin Murphy, whose three sons now occupy important roles in the organisation.

None of the companies enjoying the benefits of the burgeoning asylum-seeker business were keen to spruik their success. Canstruct, Decmil, G4S and IHMS all refused interviews.

Toll Holdings' remote logistics division is another continuing beneficiary of the Rudd government's new policy. Even before the changes last month, Toll's remote logistics division had air-charter contracts with the Immigration Department totalling more than $11 million last year. The Melbourne-based transport company had been keen to land new contracts for its remote logistics business to offset the end of its provision of services for Australian troops in East Timor.

Toll has carried out work on the Nauru detention centre for about a year but declined to disclose the total value of its immigration contracts. It was caught up in controversy this week after it was revealed it had provided free seats on a Nauru-bound aircraft for a News Corp journalist and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison - in some eyes, effectively sponsoring Morrison's latest policy announcement on Nauru.

Other charter airlines set to reap rewards from the increase in offshore asylum-seeker processing include Brisbane freight airline Pacific Air Express, which won regulatory approval in May to operate three scheduled Boeing 737 services a week to Nauru for the next five years.

Queensland's air-charter broker Adagold Aviation held the bulk of the contracts to fly asylum seekers last year, after winning government deals totalling more than $41 million. Skytraders also holds a $20 million contract with the Immigration Department. The immigration workload has proved a godsend for air-charter companies, following the drying up of defence work after the air force got its Globemaster jets , allowing it to do more of its own transportation work.

"If that immigration work wasn't around, a lot of them would go broke ... they would all be parked up in the Arizona desert," an insider says.

Related Articles