Inside Christmas Island refugee jail

February 27, 2010

An asylum seeker accused of rioting in the Christmas Island detention centre on November 21 recently contacted a refugee advocate about living conditions inside. The refugee advocate asked Green Left Weekly to withhold both their name.

At the trial of the accused rioters on January 20, the magistrate did not issue orders to move them. Yet the accused were moved to "red compound".

The asylum seeker said they felt violated by surveillance cameras in the toilets, and complained about this. They have since been moved to the centre's "alpha compound".

There are no surveillance cameras in the toilets at the alpha compound, but it is more crowded. The asylum seeker said he was in a 12-by-10 foot room with two others. It was too small to fit a table or cupboard, or to display religious items.

He said they were not allowed out to the oval, church or the pool. They were surrounded by an electric fence. They had access to mobile phones in red compound, but they are banned in alpha compound. There are two computers for 100 people.

He wrote: "We can't inform this message [to] anybody, so I inform you: what can we do?" He was distraught about the fate of his family, fearful of his fate in detention, and desperate to continue tertiary studies.

He was very appreciative of what practical help the refugee advocate could provide, which was to send him books on learning English.

That there was a need to send books suggests little had changed since a 2003 report characterised the detention centre's library services to asylum seekers as "leftovers and scraps". The living conditions sounded like a Siberian prison camp under Stalin.

Serco, the company that runs the privatised detention centre, refused to speak to GLW. However, a Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokesperson answered some questions by email.

DIAC advised that if refugees are unhappy with their living conditions they can "raise such issues with the detention services provider". The refugee advocate told GLW that the ombudsman plans to visit the island. It is not clear if the ombudsman will have access to complaints.

There is a higher security area known as "red compound". Surveillance of toilet areas is used only if inmates pose a very high risk to themselves or others. Alpha compound is an "ordinary holding area", DIAC told GLW.

Asylum seekers are given 50 credit points (worth about $1) per week with which they can purchase items such as cigarettes or phone cards to use with fixed phones.

According to DIAC, many of the books available were "sourced from the Christmas Island local school, while some books, magazines and newspapers have been donated by people living on the island". However, a "large order" of Tamil books that includes novels, cricket books and magazines had just been delivered.

Given the serious gap between the asylum seeker's evidence and DIAC's description, it is of grave concern that ordinary Australians cannot freely contact staff or residents at the centre.

Serco Australia has pledged to "meet the highest standards of performance and accountability". But has it?

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