By Camille Malafosse

There was little on the agenda that specifically targeted corporate-government partnerships in refugee affairs when the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights gathered recently in Geneva in November, but that did not stop speakers from offering a grim picture of such arrangements.

One panel – ‘The use of private military and security companies in migrant detention centres’ – put Australia and the US at the centre of critiques.

Aziz Abdul Muhammat, a former asylum-seeker from South Sudan who was caught up in Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders, was held on Christmas Island then Manus Island for a total of six years. He gave vivid personal testimony of private actors’ abuses, including being beaten in 2014, by then-G4S guards on Manus Island, ‘just like 150 other inmates’, for protesting against the conditions of their detention. 

Muhammat was among those speakers who noted that private contracting companies often change names - usually following allegations of human rights abuses – but, in his experience, ‘faces remain the same’. In his view, governments outsource inhumanity, and salaries of about $100,000 for six months incentivised workers to deliver it. 

The director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), Brynn O’Brien, called the Australian government a world leader in abusing people in immigration detention and in outsourcing risks and abuses. Government-business contracts are ruled by a system of limited, if any, accountability, she said, and they provide an effective legal vacuum where harm can be wielded with impunity. Australia’s regional processing system used men, women and children who have legally sought Australia’s protection as a warning to others who might consider doing the same, O’Brien said. Businesses have been instrumental to this end, and extensively profited from it.

Asked what civil society could do to hold business and governments to account, O’Brien said boycotting and naming-and-shaming initiatives are efficient. Also, shareholders can pursue accountability through corporate mechanisms, she said. The ACCR is strategically buying shares, enabling them to put human rights and environmental issues on company Annual General Meeting agendas. In this way, the ACCR recently filed a shareholder resolution for Qantas to quit its involvement in the forced deportation and transfer of asylum-seekers between sites of detention. 

Muhammat said civil society was working at capacity but what is lacking is the means for refugees to have agency in their own affairs. Panellists working in Greece, the US and Mexico answered that as governments around the world increasingly criminalise humanitarian activities, it has become unsafe for civil society to directly engage on the ground in some places. 

Refugee issues came up across other sessions at the Forum. The executive director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Phil Bloomer, struck a warning about the lack of accountability mechanisms for tech-giants, drawing a link between Facebook allowing hate speech against Rohingya populations and the hatred and forced displacement of thousands of Rohingya people. Other speakers pointed to the instrumental role of for-profit business in forced evictions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in paramilitary and militia activities in Colombia. 

The notion of business-induced forced migration pervaded the forum. The disproportionate corporate contribution to climate change through Co2 emissions was one instance of business playing a part in forced migration. Others included irresponsible foreign direct investments and extractive operations, modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour in supply chains, where migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable.

Business’ involvement in humanitarian affairs and in the refugee regime in particular is becoming more and more prevalent. UN entities (and UNHCR in particular), States, development banks and NGOs are indeed increasingly involved in partnerships with business actors to provide services, funds or expertise. 

These partnerships leave many ethical concerns unaddressed, including issues of transparency, accountability, and the pressures that arise when governments offer lucrative activities to businesses geared towards increasing demand


Image by Michael Green, courtesy of the Martin Ennals Award