SYDNEY: Australia awarded public contracts to firms suspected of money laundering, bribery, arms running, drug smuggling and corruption, according to the findings of a probe into lax procurement practices published Monday.

A damning investigation by Australia’s former spy chief found that several companies and individuals who won contracts to manage Australia’s controversial offshore migrant detention programmes were suspected of engaging in unethical or illegal activities.

“It’s possible that hundreds of millions of dollars was funnelled from taxpayers into companies which were using that money in part to conduct criminal wrongdoing,“ said Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, who commissioned the report.

Under Australia’s so-called “Pacific Solution”, thousands of people who attempted to reach the country by boat were moved to offshore “processing” centres on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru from 2001.

Many languished in the camps for years, in conditions described by rights groups as “hellish”.

Sparked by media reports that some companies contracted to implement the policy were suspect, Dennis Richardson -- a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and ambassador to Washington -- was called in to investigate.

He found that “proper due diligence was lacking when it came to contracts with relatively small companies with limited or no public profile.”

In one notable instance, the owners of a contracted company “were suspected, through the ownership of another company, of seeking to circumvent US sanctions against Iran, and with extensive suspicious money movements suggesting money laundering, bribery and other criminal activity”.

Other individuals or businesses were under investigation by Australian police at the time, were being investigated for drug and arms smuggling into Australia or were suspected of corruption.

“With proper due diligence, Home Affairs could have considered alternative suppliers,“ Richardson concluded.

The offshore detention programme was heavily criticised by human rights groups, but survived for decades under governments from each side of the political spectrum.

It has since been replicated by the British government in its beleaguered “Rwanda scheme”, which plans to send migrants to the central African nation -- run by President Paul Kagame for the last 24 years. - AFP

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