Nearly a decade ago, Australian authorities discovered major problems inside detention centers run by a private, for-profit company entrusted with immigrants locked up for entering the country illegally.
The company, Global Solutions Ltd. -- now owned by the British corporation G4S, the world's largest security firm -- was failing to administer care to detainees with serious health problems, according to a government investigation. A separate inquiry found that guards transporting detainees on a seven-hour drive had denied them food, water and access to bathrooms, ignoring pleas for help.
Amid public outcry over the investigation and protests by detainees who set fires and rioted at a detention center, the Australian government gradually phased out its contracts with the company. But as it now intensifies a crackdown on undocumented immigrants entering its waters, yielding growing numbers of detainees, the government has again turned to G4S to manage the flow.
"There was zero wisdom in doing that," said Sophie Peer, campaign manager for ChilOut, an Australian human rights group that focuses on children in detention. "But there's also very few firms that would put their hands up for such a hideous job."
In an age where governments around the world have increasingly sought to control borders and stem growing ranks of undocumented migrants, many are relying on a small handful of British and American multi-national corporations that have come to dominate the lucrative business of detaining unwanted visitors. Over the last 20 years, some of the world's largest immigrant detention systems in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have grown more than five-fold, with the bulk of the business handed off to for-profit contractors.
As their business opportunities have increased, so have the findings of abuse and mismanagement by contracted firms.
Just last week, prison inspectors in the U.K. found that The GEO Group, an American private prison firm with international operations, was needlessly handcuffing elderly and infirm detainees, two of whom died within hours of being transported by the company.
"These are shocking cases where a sense of humanity was lost," the inspectors' report says.
In Australia, where the entire immigrant detention system has been fully privatized since the late 1990s, authorities have found that abusive guards, a lack of mental health services and poor staff training by contractors have led to a rash of suicides, escapes and riots.
While the U.S., the U.K. and Australia have gone furthest in privatizing detention operations, smaller countries are also following suit. Last year, Greece announced that it would solicit bids from private companies to manage detention centers, and Spain has hired a private security company to oversee detainees in parts of its immigration system.
Experts argue that outsourcing such services allows government agencies to avoid accountability for the inherently controversial and complex question of how to handle immigration policy.
"When things go wrong -- and they invariably do -- it means you can sever the link to the private company and put the blame on them, or even individual employees," said Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, the head of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who has studied what he terms "the migration industry."
"It's a way of distancing yourself from responsibility, and to be politically seen as taking action, without actually performing any in-depth review of your system," he added.
But research has also pointed to a so-called lock-in effect, when a decision to outsource a core state function can make it extremely difficult for governments to reverse course. And with relatively few companies able to bid on immigration services, governments wind up doing business with contractors they have sparred with in the past.
In 2007 in Australia, for example, the center-left Labor Party campaigned on a pledge to end the immigration detention contract with Global Solutions, arguing that detainees were leaving the system as "broken human beings."
"There is one answer and one answer alone," said a party leader at the time, Tony Burke, according to the Australian newspaper The Age. "Terminate the privatization of our detention centers."
But the government eventually decided that transitioning back to public management would be too difficult. It temporarily extended the Global Solutions contract and in 2009 awarded a new contract to the Serco Group, a sprawling British government services firm that handles everything from air traffic control in the United Arab Emirates to atomic weapons management in the U.K.
Serco's revenues from Australian immigration detention contracts have grown from $323 million in 2009 to more than $1.8 billion last year. Yet the company has faced mounting criticism through the years over poorly trained guards and a series of escapes in recent months.
At a Serco-run detention center in Sydney in 2010, three men committed suicide in a span of less than three months. A subsequent investigation found that mental health services were inadequate and staff were not trained to identify suicidal behavior.
In a statement, a Serco spokesman said that the company is committed to improving conditions in what are often "complex and challenging circumstances," and that it's regularly monitored by government agencies and humanitarian observers. "We are committed to continuous improvement, to delivering a safe and secure environment, and to providing a humane and dignified service for the people in our care," the statement read.
He added that since the suicides at the detention center, the company has improved staff training and internal standards for managing detainees at risk of suicide or self-harm.
Australia has a particularly controversial history in dealing with what it calls "unlawful migrants," facing criticism from the United Nations and the country's human rights commission for more than a decade.
The number of migrants coming to Australia in any given year is relatively small, especially when compared to movement across the U.S.-Mexico border -- the busiest migration corridor on the planet. But boat arrivals have long been a nettlesome political issue in Australia, which has a far smaller population than the United States yet also a lot less arable land.
In the last two years, Australia has seen an uptick in boats coming from Indonesia, many of which carry migrants from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The influx prompted the government in 2012 to renew a policy of "offshore processing" of migrants. Under this system, authorities stop boats coming into Australian waters and send migrants to detention camps on remote islands in other countries.
The government currently pays the tiny republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to take in asylum seekers. Most remain in limbo a long time as local officials process claims for asylum.
Also in 2012, the Australian government agreed to a contract with G4S to operate a detention camp on Manus Island, governed by Papua New Guinea. Recent reports from the U.N. Refugee Agency and Amnesty International detailed deplorable conditions in the detention camp and a lack of medical and mental health services.
"Part of why they do the offshore stuff is there's less scope for any legal protections," said Andrew Bartlett, a former member of the Australian Senate who is a research fellow with the migration law program at Australian National University. "It's very difficult for there to be any sort of accountability or scrutiny."
The Guardian Australia recently reported that G4S' contract on Manus Island would not be renewed at the end of this month. Neither G4S nor Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection responded to requests for comment.
G4S and Serco, along with the American private prison firm The GEO Group, also operate the majority of the U.K.'s immigration detention centers.
All three firms have had major operational troubles through the years.
A recent report found that inspectors at the GEO Group detention center near London's Heathrow Airport had handcuffed at least two men on the verge of death. It concluded that employees at the facility failed to focus on detainees who were sick, elderly or at risk of self-harm.
"There needed to be a refocusing on individual needs of the most vulnerable people in detention, some of whom had been utterly failed by the system," the report found.
In a statement, the GEO Group pointed to positive findings in the report, such as improvements in recreation and education activities, and said that it has "an excellent track record" of operating facilities in the U.K. The company said detainees are "not routinely handcuffed," but noted that managers have discretion in cases where there is a risk of escape.
At one of Serco's U.K. facilities, two guards were fired in October after a Roma woman told inspectors that she had been sexually abused.
In 2012, a coroner's inquest jury found that staff negligence at another Serco facility had led to the death of a Pakistani man a year earlier. The man's roommate pressed an emergency buzzer over the course of two hours, trying to alert staff to the medical problems, but no one got him the proper assistance until it was too late, a separate report found.
British reports on unannounced inspections at G4S facilities have documented high rates of assaults on detainees. One report in 2010 described a G4S detention center near Gatwick Airport as "fundamentally unsafe." Inspectors found that violence and drug use within the center led to "a degree of despair" among the detainees at a level "we have rarely encountered."
G4S lost a detainee transportation contract in the U.K. in 2010 after the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum seeker who died on a plane after being restrained by G4S guards. G4S at the time said the decision was not related to the death.
The company has retained its detention center contracts, and has continued to win other immigration-related contracts in Britain.
"Even if you punish corporations by ending a contract and adopting another one, when it happens again it's almost unavoidable not to go back to the first company," said Gammeltoft-Hansen, the Danish researcher. "There's a market capture that's very, very hard to get out of."
Private prison corporations have also dominated the immigration detention market in the U.S. The market has grown from being able to hold 7,000 inmates in 1994 to 34,000 last year. Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group, the two major American prison firms, have both more than doubled their revenues from immigration detention since 2005, according to securities filings.
Income from immigrant detention has grown as other traditional revenue streams, such as contracts to manage state prisons, have begun to flatten in recent years for the companies.
Both CCA and The GEO Group have also profited from increased enforcement along the border, which has led to criminal convictions and prison sentences for tens of thousands of migrants captured while crossing into the United States. Most of that population ends up in a network of low-security, privately managed federal prisons.
Civil and human rights groups have pointed to a series of problems at these privatized federal prisons. At the GEO Group-operated Reeves County Detention Center in west Texas, there were two major riots in the span of a month in late 2008 and early 2009, following a series of suicides and inmate deaths at the prison.
CCA's Eloy Detention Center in Arizona has also had a high number of recent suicides. In a span of less than six months in 2012 and 2013, there were three suicides at Eloy, which made up half of all the deaths in U.S. detention so far that year. According to records released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 10 detainees died between 2003 and 2012 at the Eloy facility, the most of any facility contracted or owned by the agency.
A CCA spokesman, Steve Owen, wrote in an email that the fatalities at the Eloy detention center are not comparable to other ICE facilities because it houses many more detainees. He said that the facility is highly regulated and that detainees are fully briefed on mental health resources.
"We want to prevent any loss of life, so suicide prevention is rightly a major focus for our team," he said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency did an assessment of the Eloy facility's suicide prevention standards last year and is still reviewing the matter.
Critics of privatized detention in the U.S. argue that by handing off so much responsibility to private contractors, the federal government now lacks the expertise to make needed reforms to the largest detention network in the world.
"They've abdicated a lot of responsibility, because it's quicker and easier this way," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice advocacy group that campaigns against prison privatization. "The result is what's largely a captured agency. I don't see how [the immigration agency] makes major moves without consultation from the private prison corporations, and that's not an effective immigration policy."