Christmas Island: Howard's new refugee shame

Friday, May 4, 2007

Christmas Island, 2800 kilometres north-west of Perth, 2500 kilometres from Darwin and 500 kilometres from Singapore, is one of Australia's most remote Indian Ocean territories. It is where many asylum seekers first make their refugee claims. But since the 2001 arrival of the Tampa and the island's excision from Australia's migration zone, the island has been pivotal to the Howard government's heartless response to asylum seekers.

visited Christmas Island in February to assess the offshore processing centre and the new, maximum security lock up. The detention centre is classified as an "offshore processing centre", but asylum seekers are prevented from getting legal advice on their protection applications. Christmas Island is also now the dumping ground for asylum seekers who have reached mainland Australia.

The maximum security, 800-bed lock up is due to be completed in July-August at a cost of $400-$500 million. But given that fewer refugees are arriving by boat, why such a facility is needed at all hasn't been answered.

Christmas Island has a resident population of around 1200, with around 300 transient construction workers. All supplies are brought in a weekly ship from the mainland. While there is adequate freshwater on the island for now, it is unclear how long that will last. The main industries are phosphate mining and tourism.

Christmas Island is still governed by an administrator appointed by the federal government. By-laws are made by the nine-member elected shire council, however Western Australia's laws apply. The island is represented in the federalparliament by a senator from the Northern Territory. Overall, the island comes under the purview of the minister for external territories. The islanders' lack of control over their own affairs is compounded by a history of racial discrimination by mainland bureaucrats.

Asylum seekers being processed on Christmas Island are housed in a complex of demountable buildings on Phosphate Hill. These structures were built after Tampa, when the community centre was the only other available place for the refugees.

There are only three people living in a relatively large centre: two West Timorese men (one is 19 years old) and a Vietnamese man who lived allegedly as a UNHCR refugee in Indonesia awaiting resettlement for 10 years. Visiting requires an appointment made 24 hours in advance and only at the request of one of the asylum seekers. Guards force visitors to leave after an hour.

Joseph and Jamal told me that while the facilities are sound, they remain puzzled about why they are kept under guard when the risk of their leaving is negligible. Neither have seen the lawyers working on their cases, nor have they attended any refugee status determination hearings. All communications with legal representatives takes place over the telephone.

As both men arrived on excised parts of the migration zone, they will not have access to the full appeal mechanisms for the refugee protection applications. Jamal, who has spent more than a year in detention, has had a Refugee Review Tribunal hearing conducted via telephone linkup. Joseph has been detained for more than five months.

For those asylum seekers who arrive on the mainland but are subsequently transported by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to Christmas Island, such as the 43 West Papuans who arrived in 2006 or the approximately 50 Vietnamese (including children) who travelled on the Hao Kiet in 2004, the legal avenues and resources available to them for rigorous determination of their protection applications are still questionable.

In the case of the West Papuans, who were processed relatively quickly, DIAC funded the lawyers' travel to Christmas Island from Melbourne. However, the Vietnamese, the majority of whom spent two years in detention before receiving temporary protection visas, were not so fortunate. Eventually the Christmas Islanders raised the necessary funding for the lawyers' visit.

Because asylum seeker children can now only be detained as a last resort, children are no longer imprisoned in the detention centre. DIAC looks to ways of detaining children and their families in the community under the "residence determination" program.

There is one West Timorese family in residence determination on Christmas Island. While this family is related to Jamal, he was not considered part of the family group when its eligibility for residence determination was assessed.

The family is housed in the remote village of Drumsite, but has very little access to support services. Fortunately, two local residents, who speak Indonesian, are helping out, especially with transportation.

The Christmas Island Rural Australians for Refugees said DIAC wants the Red Cross to provide residence determination services. However, the Red Cross does not have a permanent, or even regular, presence on the island.

DIAC, the Christmas Island Shire and local refugee advocates support the "designated person" program that allows asylum seekers who would otherwise be detained to live in the community. A number of islanders have successfully applied to DIAC to be recognised as designated people who will take full responsibility for "guarding" Jamal and Joseph when they are granted "day release".

While the designated people and the asylum seekers believe the scheme is good, the islanders worry about DIAC's obsession with preventing escapes. Given the isolation and size of the island, they say that designated people should not be forced to act like quasi guards.

A replacement, permanent immigration detention centre is being constructed on land previously used for mining and bounded by a fishing track 20-30 kilometres out of town. It is at the opposite end to the island settlement. The prison is only accessible by off-road vehicles and it seems that the federal government is in no hurry to improve accessibility. As it is being built some way into the ground, its sheer size is not visible from ground level.

The centre is on track to be commissioned in July-August. Although the original budget was $230 million (for a 1200-bed facility to be completed in late 2002), it has blown out to almost $500 million (for an 800-bed facility — 400 permanent beds plus 400 "contingency" beds).

The contractors put the cost blowout down to the failure to account for the difficult foundations. The plans for the detention centre were drafted in 2001-02 and, despite the shift away from detaining family groups, there appears to have been no modification of the plans.

DIAC argues that the "purpose-built" detention centre is an attempt to overcome the problems with existing detention facilities on the mainland. There are cells designed for people with disabilities, and the roofs of the complex are pitched such that it is almost impossible for people to mount them and stage protests. The perimeter fence is a substantial distance from the fence containing the detainees and includes large gates to make it difficult for protesters outside the centre to access detainees. All the furniture is stainless steel and is likely to be bolted to the floor so it can be hosed down and cannot be burned or thrown, and medical, educational and recreational facilities are contained within the complex.

The security system involves electrified and microwave fences and the capacity for remote monitoring of individual detainees via a multitude of CCTV and microphone devices in every room. There is the capacity to lock down cell blocks, and individual cells or groups of cells within those blocks, using electronic doors and impenetrable mesh screens.

Given the small number of asylum seekers who manage to reach Christmas Island, there has been much speculation about how the centre will be used. Options that have been suggested include moth-balling, use as a repository for all asylum seekers in Australia and maintenance as a contingency measure on 48-hour readiness. A recent visit by US military intelligence operatives who examined a range of Christmas Island facilities, including the new prison, compounded the speculation.

Very few of the islanders have been involved in the giant construction, the vast majority of workers being brought from the mainland on six-week rotations, and even though there is a community consultation committee that meets regularly with the DIAC, how the government's refugee policy affects Christmas Island is beyond the purview of this committee.

A naval ship patrols the waters a few kilometres north of the island as part of "Operation Relex". The ship's crew, and others on associated vessels, are responsible for intercepting and preventing potential asylum seeker boats from docking on the island. This includes "fixing" unseaworthy boats and forcing them to return to international waters.

Apart from the SIEV X, islanders are aware of other boats likely to have been carrying asylum seekers that have sunk without trace off the coast while naval ships have been on patrol.

The majority of Christmas Islanders are opposed to their island becoming a refugee prison. While residents are prepared to accommodate and provide for asylum seekers for short periods before they are taken to the mainland, they do not want asylum seekers to stay holed up for extended periods.

Islanders are concerned that their home is critical to Howard's "Pacific solution". Many locals reject the federal government's view that Christmas Island is the "perfect place" for offshore processing of asylum-seekers because it has all the "benefits" of an offshore centre like Nauru — remoteness, lack of public scrutiny and lack of access to legal advice — while avoiding the difficulties of dealing with a sovereign government.

Howard's excision of Christmas Island from the migration zone is calculated to capitalise on the different rules governing the processing systems on the mainland and the excised zones. Shifting asylum seekers away from mainland prisons to Christmas Island means restricting their access to support networks.

The Christmas Island detention centre — Australia's very own Alcatraz — not only confirms the problems associated with offshore processing, it highlights the acute shortcomings of the government's "Pacific solution". We should oppose all policies that seek to punish refugees for daring to request Australia's protection from persecution.

[Anna Samson is a refugee advocate.]

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