BY PIP HINMAN
SYDNEY — The federal government's "Pacific solution" is likely to be become the "Christmas Island solution" when a 1200-bed detention centre is finished there in March 2003, Anne Coombs, from Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR), said on July 10. Coombs, who recently visited the island, was guest speaker at a Free the Refugees Campaign meeting in Newtown.
The new detention centre for asylum seekers is being constructed in the middle of a national park, which is home to endangered species of birds. "Christmas Island could be Australia's Galapagos Island or it could be our gulag", Coombs said.
She estimated that 50% of the island's population is opposed to the detention centre, but the federal government is not prepared to listen to their views. Coombs reported that at a March 11 meeting on the island, the minister responsible for territories, Wilson Tuckey, would not brook any criticism. "I'm not listening to this pile of horse shit", was Tuckey's blunt response to arguments presented by Gordon Thompson from the shire council.
Last August, most Christmas Islanders wanted the refugees from the MV Tampa to be allowed to come ashore and staged demonstrations to make their point. Being able to see the refugees' desperation only made the islanders more anxious, said Coombs. The Tampa refugees were shipped to Nauru, Manus Island in PNG and New Zealand.
In November, asylum seekers were picked up on Ashmore reef and Cocos Islands and bought to the island. They are housed in the sports pavilion, which — apart from the heat and lack of space — Coombs said is better than the Woomera and Curtin refugee prisons. Detainees are allowed to visit the mosque, temple and school each day.
Nevertheless, Coombs said the overwhelming feeling at the centre is one of hopelessness. "Detainees have no access to help and many have been there for more than nine months. They are supposed to get a decision on their refugee status within six weeks", she said.
Many Christmas Islanders believed the temporary detention centre would close. They were shocked to hear of plans for the permanent centre. Some groups, such as the Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce, have offered to design a more "humane" centre, while others say that there is no such thing.
Coombs also described the inspiring growth of the RAR network. Since October, more than 40 RAR groups across Australia have formed. She encouraged rural- and city-based refugees' rights groups to work together.
She pointed to proposal to wear black armbands on "Tampa Day", August 26, to symbolise opposition and disgust at the Australian government's racist refugee policies, as one such opportunity.
[To get in touch with Free the Refugees Campaign, email <email@example.com>.]
From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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