A total lockdown was imposed on the Christmas Island detention centre for three days after fighting broke out on November 21.
Conflict erupted among 150 asylum seekers said to be from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. The fighting took half an hour to break up and 38 people were injured. Three needed to be flown to a hospital in Perth with fractures and other injuries, ABC Online said on November 23.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Collective maintains phone contact with asylum seekers in the centre. He told Green Left Weekly: "They locked the whole place down from Saturday until Tuesday; all the compounds were locked down individually."
The federal government was quick to blame "tensions" between Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and Tamil and Sinhalese refugees from Sri Lanka. Both countries are now the leading places of origin for refugees coming to Australia.
Immigration minister Chris Evans said fear of deportation had led to anxiety among those waiting for refugee status. Recently, six Sri Lankan men in the detention centre had been sent back to their country.
"People will get anxious if they see people are failing in their asylum claims and that's not going to change", Evans told ABC radio's AM on November 23.
It won't change as long as the government is committed to continuing a policy that leaves already traumatised, desperate people in frightening, uncertain situations.
In the meantime, security has been tightened and the Australian Federal Police have launched an investigation into the fight. The government said the people involved could be charged and threatened with deportation.
Rintoul told GLW it was disgraceful. "They're just looking for a reason not to see people as asylum seekers", he said.
Overcrowding in the detention centre has also been raised by refugee rights activists. Since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd started using the facility in 2008, passengers from all refugee boats "intercepted" in Australian waters have been taken there.
"The numbers inside each compound have more than doubled in a very short space of time", Rintoul said. "Now things are being taken away and limited."
He said the fight was sparked by "the conditions inside the detention centre". Anxiety over deportation and stress as a result of cramped conditions are both big factors.
"People are angry, frustrated and have been waiting too long, particularly for the Tamils. The deportations have had an effect, because previously they thought, 'if we wait, we'll get processed and get asylum'. Now they are seeing people forcibly removed and the high security section of the centre reopened."
David Manne, a lawyer and coordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC) in Melbourne, has visited Christmas Island several times. He told GLW the detention centre was "one huge high-tech prison".
"Aspects of the centre are designed on a maximum security design. And this is for people who are fleeing harm, not who have caused harm."
He referred specifically to the notorious "red block", a section of the centre that recently held six Sri Lankan men after they staged a protest, fearing deportation, on October 30.
"The 'red block' area is extremely punitive", Manne said, "with small metal cells for living in and small cage areas for outdoor environments. I have seen that area and there is no doubt in my mind that it is inherently cruel and horrific."
The Labor government is committed to locking up every one of the relatively few refugees that have braved the treacherous journey to Australia by boat. It is now stretched almost to capacity, and the boats keep coming.
The immigration department's website said the centre had a "regular use" capacity of only 400 people, with contingency plans to temporarily house up to 688 more. But now, thanks to Rudd's "no apology" mandatory detention policy, more than 1100 people are straining the sparse resources of the offshore prison.
The government has been forced to make even more "contingency" plans. This included the installation of 200 extra bunks and an announcement to expand capacity to detain up to 2300 people. Recently, tents were brought in as "back up" accommodation, said the November 2 Australian, and furnished shipping containers would also be used.
Construction of a new detention centre on the island was completed in 2007, however asylum seekers had been arriving on the island for a few decades before that, and were housed in demountables under the previous Coalition government. Located 2600 kilometres north-west of Perth, the territory was also excised from Australia's migration zone.
Manne told GLW Christmas Island served to isolate asylum seekers and deny proper access to their rights as refugees.
"They are kept in such a remote and inaccessible place", he said. "There are enormous obstacles to offering legal help, briefings or even talking over the phone."
RILC represents about 200 cases from Christmas Island, but getting there to meet with people and discuss their refugee claims costs the equivalent of a trip to Europe, he said.
"Every step of the way, there are potholes.
"The whole set-up there is not to cater for the needs of people who are detained there. It's completely inappropriate.
"It will cause trauma to people who have already been harmed."
A recent inquiry into immigration detention in Australia was held to assess Australia's policy of detaining refugees while claims were processed.
A July 2008 submission from the Australian Psychological Society definitively slammed detention as "inherently undesirable" for its adverse mental health outcomes. It concluded: "Detention is a negative socialisation experience [and] detention exacerbates the impacts of other traumas."
"This is particularly so for people already in a vulnerable state or with pre-existing mental health concerns, which is often the case for people who have suffered in fleeing persecution and seeking protection in Australia", the submission said.
This is well known. During previous prime minister John Howard's time in office, distressing images of refugees behind razor wire in Woomera, Villawood, Baxter and Port Hedland detention centres sparked public outrage and provoked sympathy for the refugees.
Abolishing mandatory detention was a demand of the refugee rights movement and a promise Rudd made before he was elected. But his practice has been contrary to his promise.
In July last year, Evans announced plans to "significantly dismantle Australia's policy of mandatorily detaining refugees".
"Persons will be detained only if the need is established", he said. But criteria for detaining people included — as well as those deemed "terrorists" or "suspect" — anyone without "proper documentation".
Most refugees don't have "proper documentation", because they have fled their own country.
Labor moved further away from a humane refugee policy when it announced it would start using the previously idle Christmas Island detention centre last year. Evans said in a July 29, 2008 media release this was to respond to "any major increase in unauthorised arrivals".
The practice of discriminating against refugees is illegal under international law and, Manne said, Australian law too.
"People need to show a demonstrable risk [in order] to be detained and also have the right to appeal their detention. That right is being denied to the asylum seekers in detention", he said.
Refugees are not nameless people that will quietly wait behind bars for a "tough" government of a free and safe country to decide their fate.
They are people seeking protection for themselves and their families. Anxiety and frustration is an inevitable product of being treated like criminals when protection, safety and understanding are what is most needed.
The Christmas Island detention centre must be closed, along with the demolition of all offshore processing. Refugees must be welcomed onto the Australian mainland and into the community, no matter what the circumstance of their arrivals.