Doubt over offshore detention centres as contracts near end

The detention centre at Manus Island Source: AAP

There are new questions over the future of Australia's offshore immigration detention centres.The private company which operates the centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru has announced its plans to leave by the end of October.The government is yet to begin the process of finding a new provider and an expert says time is running out.James Blakkaly reports.

The people living inside Australia's offshore immigration detention centres are inured to uncertainty.

But there's a new question mark now hanging over the management of the centres themselves.

Broadspectrum and its parent Spanish company, Ferrovial, who currently run both the Manus Island centre in P-N-G and the Nauru centre, say they won't be continuing after October.

In six months from now their current contract ends and the Australian government is yet to open a tender to find a replacement company.

University of Melbourne professor of public management Janine O'Flynn has been studying government outsourcing for almost 20 years.

"There is going to have to be a substantial transition period from one provider to another. You don't just literally walk out on one day and a new provider walks in the next. Given the scale and the political importance of this arrangement, I would have thought we are probably cutting it a bit fine already."

There are currently almost 1,500 people in offshore detention centres, according to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Hundreds of those people may be eligible for resettlement in the United States under a refugee deal made with the Obama government, if it is to go ahead.

But some will remain.

There's no clear indication how many will got to America, and at least several hundred aren't eligible for the program.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week confirmed the centre on Manus Island would close by the end of the year.

But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday said there is an ongoing need for the centre on Nauru.

A statement from the Department says proper process will be followed: "The Department is considering next steps to ensure service delivery continues in regional processing countries. Any new procurement process will be conducted in accordance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules."

Professor O'Flynn says there needs to be closer scrutiny of the government's management of the detention centre contracts.

She says it's particularly necessary after a series of reports by the Australian National Audit Office which criticised the way the government had in the past procured, and managed, the contracts.

"The Australian government had now had two decades of experience in procuring and managing offshore detention and still encounters the same problems that it has shown there is a massive issue in terms of feasibility to manage that relationship and to really contract effectively in a best-practice way."

The Audit Office reports, from September last year and January this year, highlighted poor Departmental oversight of the contract provider and examples of mismanagement and wasteful spending.

Labor's immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, says an open tender process for a new service provider should have already begun.

"Potentially hundreds of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will miss out on the opportunity to resettle in the United States and could be left to languish in Regional Processing Centres for years to come. The new tender process for garrison and welfare services in offshore centres has been suspended by the Turnbull Government. The Minister is cutting it fine with these contracts."

The Greens' immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, says this government has repeatedly failed to follow proper procurement processes.

"It would be no surprise if the Immigration Department and Minister Dutton once again played fast and loose with tax payers money and failed to follow a proper process, which is what they have done so many times in the past. And this basically give the government a fantastic opportunity to do what they should have done a long time ago and that is close the camps on Manus and Nauru and bring the people in them here to Australia."

The current provider has come under pressure from human rights groups, including a recent report from Amnesty International, which also issued a warning to potential bidders.

No companies have publicly expressed interest yet in taking up the contracts, but Professor O'Flynn says private negotiations are likely already taking place.

She says there may be interest from companies who run immigration detention centres in the United States or Europe, where the industry has been growing over the last few years.

"One of the big challenges internationally is that many countries are looking to Australia for inspiration for how to deal with these issues, and that's a sort of commercial conundrum, because what we know from the audit is that they haven't been managed very well at all."


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