Fate of refugee activists’ “Divest from Detention” campaign against Melbourne University unclear

7 November 2019

Refugee advocacy group RISE has renewed calls for the University of Melbourne to sever ties with detention centre security, after the group’s initial divestment campaign was undermined by misinformation.

According to a report by The Guardian (which has since been amended), RISE wrote an open letter, signed by over 200 staff, demanding the University end its contract with Wilson Security back in July this year. However, Wilson Security had not been employed by the University since 2017.

The situation was complicated further when a University spokesperson did not correct RISE on this error, confirming with The Guardian that the University was open to discussing divesting from Wilson Security.

In a media statement, RISE offered an explanation into the confusion, citing how “Wilson Security clearly stated on their webpage that one of their partners was Melbourne University.” RISE also referenced that Wilson Security continued to list the University of Melbourne as one of its “key clients” on their website, despite no longer being contracted by the University.

“We approached Wilson Security before we released our statement to clarify whether they have an ongoing contract with Melbourne University but they refused to give us a clear answer,” RISE said.

Wilson Security has since deleted their listing of the University of Melbourne as a client on their website.

Further enquiry revealed that the University’s security is currently provided by MSS Security. The University’s contract with MSS Security, obtained under Freedom of Information, commenced on the 1st May 2017, with an initial term of 3 years. This was confirmed by Alan Tait, Chief Financial Officer of the University of Melbourne, through a media spokesperson.

While some facts in their initial campaign were incorrect, RISE still believes the University has connections to detention centre security. According to RISE, MSS Security is a subcontractor of Serco Security Group, who is currently employed by the Australian Government to provide security services in detention centres across Australia. This includes the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre (MITA) in Broadmeadows, where it was reported earlier this year that a 23-year-old Afghanistan man died. According to police, his death was not under suspicious circumstances. Two days after the man’s death, however, another man in the same facility sustained injuries from attempting to set himself on fire.

RISE claim they have eye witness accounts of MSS Security Guards working in transit detention centres where Serco is the main service provider on the behalf of the Home Affairs Department (Australian Border Force):

“An ex-detainee has seen MSS in one of the onshore camps from 2017… however it is not a good idea to specify the camp to avoid compromising their safety.”

Serco, MSS Security and the Department of Home Affairs were all contacted for confirmation but MSS Security and Department of Home Affairs did not respond. Serco advised that questions about their subcontracting arrangements be directed to the Department of Home Affairs.

Representatives from RISE and the University met on July 10 after Tait called for a meeting to address the University’s relationship with security companies in detention centres.

Farrago had originally been invited to the meeting by RISE representatives, but was later informed that Tait did not want media in attendance.

A media spokesperson for the University said that the University’s Vice-President (Administration & Finance) and Tait “had a positive and respectful meeting with three representatives of the RISE group”.

However, it appears the meeting was not as well-received by the other party. RISE told Farrago, “At the meeting, RISE ex-detainee members were not satisfied with Melbourne University’s approach and excuses. [They] will not compromise [their] values and will not tolerate any ties with detention centre (sic) profiteers.”

During the meeting, RISE ex-detainee member, Abdul Baig said that they did not want excuses from the University, but affirmative actions in favour of human rights. “We need them to live up to their own human rights values but behind the scenes, they continue their relationships with the detention profiteers. If Melbourne University is worried about their reputation, why can’t they say in public they will not support any detention profiteers?”

The University has provided minimal information about the terms of their new contract with MSS Security nor specified if they are receptive to RISE’s divestment campaign when it relates to the University’s contract with MSS Security.

This story is ongoing.

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