Meet the European Corporations Profiting From the Misery of Refugees

Many Europeans have responded by offering humanitarian help. But for some others, the refugees represent an opportunity to make money.

BUDAPEST - SEPTEMBER 5 : War refugees at the Keleti Railway Station on 5 September 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Refugees are arriving constantly to Hungary on the way to Germany.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Rotenberg

The miseries of the Syrian and Afghan wars and the dictatorship in Eritrea have come to Europe in the form of refugees. Last year, more than a million refugees escaped civil war, terrorism and repression by packing their bags and making the arduous trek across land and sea. The majority came from civil war-wracked Syria, though many came from other countries, too.

Many Europeans have responded by offering humanitarian help. But for some others, the refugees represent an opportunity to make money.

Across the European Union, private contractors have received cash from European governments to meet the overwhelming challenge of detaining, policing and processing the refugees. The refugee crisis means profit for these contractors. And in some cases, these corporations have abused refugees.

Private companies run facilities and security for refugees in Europe, though there are also state-run shelters. And there are also arms companies, which are capitalizing on the crisis by hawking weapons and surveillance equipment to countries trying to keep refugees out or police them.

Writing in the Independent, journalist Antony Loewenstein, author of the bookDisaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, explained that for corporations in the refugee business, “There’s no financial incentive for the firm to provide the best training, healthcare, food or mental health...Politically, the arrangement also suits both the company and the government, blaming the other when something inevitably goes wrong. Publicly run detention centres and prisons are hardly utopian and remain replete with problems— but at least there’s one level of public accountability.”

The most prominent case of refugee abuse occurred in Germany. In September 2014, the German media published images of two private security guards harming refugees at a shelter in Burbach, located in the western part of the country. In one photograph, two guards are seen pinning a handcuffed refugee from Algeria underfoot. In a separate video, guards forced a refugee to sit on a mattress covered in vomit. “Lay down in your vomit and go to sleep,” one guard is heard saying. Many observers compared the incidents to Abu Ghraib, when American soldiers were photographed torturing Iraqi detainees. One of the guards who abused refugees at the shelter had a neo-Nazi tattoo, according to Der Spiegel. That the guard had neo-Nazi sympathies is a reflection of a broad problem, the newspaper reported. In Brandenburg, German authorities estimated that one out of every 10 right-wing extremists works for a security company.

The company that ran the shelter in Burbach is European Homecare, which contracted out security to a separate company, SKI. Despite the fact that European Homecare, which runs about 100 shelters, oversaw the shelter where the abuse occurred, it was awarded a 207,000 euro contract—about $225,000—to run another shelter in Lower Saxony, a neighboring state. European Homecare’s contract for the shelter in Burbach was revoked.

Elsewhere in Germany, hotel operators are getting cash from the state to house asylum seekers. But in some hotels, like one in Oberursel highlighted by Der Spiegel, services like hot water and toilets are scant.

And then there’s the money paid to companies like Air Berlin PLC, which made $350,000 in 2014 for operating the flights that deported asylum seekers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In neighboring Austria, European Homecare gave up its contract to run a refugee shelter three years ago. A Swiss company, ORS, took over the Traiskirchen refugee center. That company rakes in at least $100 million a year, and its profits will likely increase because of the refugee crisis. But it doesn't run the center in Austria well. The United Nations said conditions there were “beneath human dignity”; in a facility meant to host 1,800 people, 4,500 were being housed. Over 2,000 people were forced to sleep outside, having to deal with rainstorms and heat waves without beds or shelter.

Alev Korun, an opposition lawmaker from the Green Party in Austria, said the country was copying the American model of privatized prisons. “That's not my wish because we all know the negative examples of all the things that are happening in American prisons,” he told Global Post. “Handing the care of refugees over to a private company, that's a huge mistake.”

When refugees began to go to Eastern Europe in a bid to reach the more prosperous Western countries, Hungary cracked down hard. Its prime minister, Viktor Orban, said, “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.” He put that harsh rhetoric into action by deploying the army at the border and authorized them to shoot rubber bullets at refugees. The government also quickly moved to build a wall, complete with razor wire, at its border with Serbia. Hungary turned to private contractors to build the barrier, and some residents claimed the contracts went to Orban’s cronies. Eventually, Orban turned the project over to the military.

Britain has accepted far fewer refugees from Syria than Germany. Since June 2015, the country has taken in only 166 Syrian refugees. In 2014, the UK received 31,000 asylum applications, and granted the status to 41 percent of people. Britain relies heavily on private contractors, which run seven out of 11 immigrant detention facilities. Some of the corporations that run the centers have been accused of abusing refugees.

LGBT asylum seekers told VICE News in 2014 that they faced “homophobic abuse and sexual harassment” in detention centers run by GEO Group. Five men have died at the facility since 2000, three of whom hung themselves. GEO Group is not the only private contractor linked to sexual abuse. Yarl Wood, the largest detention center for female asylum seekers, is run by Serco, a private company awarded an estimated $100 million contract in 2014 by the government. That contract was given despite reports that a male guard had sexually assaulted a detainee.

G4S, a British company, is another giant in the global security industry, and it too has repeatedly abused refugees. The most famous case occurred in 2010, when Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan refugee, died on a plane deporting him. G4S guards were responsible for restraining him, and at one point Mubenga said he could not breathe because of excessive restraint. None of the three guards were found guilty of manslaughter.

Apart from private security and detention companies, weapons companies are also making money from the crisis. European defense contractors like Airbus, Finmeccanica and Thales have been awarded much of the estimated $244 million going toward building up what’s known as Fortress Europe, Fortune Magazine reported. Fortress Europe is the name given to the system of drones, satellite surveillance and border patrolling robots meant to police and keep refugees from entering Europe. Military contractors are developing the technology bought by European states to beef up border controls.

The refugee crisis has no end in sight. The Syrian civil war, which has produced millions of refugees fleeing the Assad regime and the Islamic State, continues to grind on. Human misery is bound to increase, and the European corporations tasked with keeping people out or policing refugees once they’re inside are bound to cash in. For these private contractors, the refugee crisis is good for business.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World