Warning given about Christmas Island gulag

March 30, 2007

A March 28 forum of 150 people, organised by the Refugee Action Collective, was told that a new detention centre being built on Christmas Island will have the capacity to hold 800 people under 24-hour surveillance, and that detainees will have to wear electronic ID tags and be tracked at all times.

Christmas island is 2400 kilometres from Perth, 360 kilometres from Jakarta and nearly 2000 kilometres from Darwin. Its isolation from Australia makes it a perfect prison island. The prison is surrounded by electric fences and will have "family units" containing kitchens and facilities for educating children.

Anna Samson, who recently visited the island and presented a slide show on the new prison, said that it is being built on a rocky outcrop far from the main Christmas Island settlement, and can only be accessed by four-wheel drive.

She said the descriptor of the prison as a "government holding centre" was really "just a nice name for an Alcatraz". "The island's status as a 'non-governing territory' means that the prison is being built despite strong objections from the local community." she also said that the prison is being dug into the ground, making it likely that prisoners will not be able to see outside the prison. It will cost around $500 million to build.

"The government propaganda about the new centre declares that people 'won't even know they're being detained' as there are kitchens and other facilities. But the remoteness of the island means that prisoners are removed from public gaze, and [they] become faceless", Samson warned.

Guy Coffey, a mental health worker, described the mental affects of detention on prisoners, reminding the forum that many asylum seekers who have been detained have been tortured before coming to Australia, and that detention "only makes this worse".

Julian Burnside QC reminded the meeting that despite the government's scare campaign, it is not illegal to seek asylum. Burnside said that despite the remoteness of the prison, a campaign against its functioning could be successful. "The movement for justice for David Hicks has achieved some results, so we can stop this detention centre."

The meeting also heard that last November, the US military visited the Christmas Island prison, conjuring up the not so remote possibility of it being used as a Guantanamo Bay-type gulag.

Burnside suggested a different use for the prison: as "a retirement home for Canberra politicians".

Plans for the new prison can be seen on <http://crikey.com> and are also available on <http://youtube.com>.

[See the calendar listings on page 27 for a Sydney forum about the Christmas Island detention centre on April 23.]

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