Christmas Island is a tiny speck on a map of the Indian Ocean. It’s a remote Australian territory, just 360 kilometres south of Jakarta and 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth in Western Australia. But this tiny speck is the epicentre of Australia’s controversial mandatory-detention policy.
Asylum seekers heading for Australia from Malaysia or Indonesia know it well. They head for its rocky shores aboard rickety, wooden-hulled boats, a journey that costs them thousands of dollars and forces them to put their trust in shady human smugglers.
If these people, would-be refugees from countries in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, reach Australian waters, it’s on Christmas Island that they will have their first, but not their last, experience of mandatory detention.
Australia has nine immigration detention centres for holding asylum seekers while their refugee claims are being processed, but none so controversial as the one on Christmas Island, called Northwest Point. Since it opened in 2008, it’s been the site of hunger strikes, protests and angry riots.
Residents of the island are used to their idyllic paradise being synonymous with immigration detention. The Times Colonist was given a rare tour of the detention centre and other immigration facilities across Australia to get a better picture of the country’s mandatory-detention network.
Canada is following Australia in adopting a mandatory-detention policy for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, a reaction to the arrival of two migrant ships: the Ocean Lady in 2009, carrying 76 Tamil men, and the MV Sun Sea in 2010, with 492 men, women and children on board. Instead of detention centres, which have proven to be expensive and psychologically harmful, Canada will hold them in provincial jails, which human rights advocates say will be even worse.
From the island’s lookout, the Christmas Island immigration detention centre is a concrete and metal scar in the midst of a jungle canopy. The sloping metal roofs of the centre’s structures cover a rectangular patch at the northwestern tip of the island, 17 kilometres from the main town.
The centre was built at a cost of $400 million after an influx in asylum seekers reaching Australia’s shores. The number of those seekers has increased dramatically in recent years.
Last year, 69 boats arrived carrying almost 4,600 asylum seekers. So far this year, almost 12,000 have turned up on 178 boats, although boat arrivals still only make up about 10 per cent of asylum applications to Australia.
The detention centre has fences topped with barbed wire, anti-climb mesh walls and nine housing compounds locked behind metal turnstile gates. Cameras point in every direction and the centre is guarded around the clock by security guards employed by Serco, the private company hired to manage the network of detention centres. While men are allowed to roam freely inside, it has all the characteristics of a maximum security prison. Some former detainees describe it as a cage.
Refugee advocates and human-rights groups call it Australia’s Guantanamo Bay, because people are locked up indefinitely, without charge or trial.
“Only it’s worse if you’re an asylum seeker — you’ve done nothing wrong,” said Gordon Thomson, who has been a councillor for the shire of Christmas Island for the better part of 15 years. He sits outside his office on Poon San Road, smoking a cigarette and saying hi to workers coming in and out of the neighbouring grocery store. Thomson has a wry sense of humour that masks some of the human suffering he’s seen.
Thompson has watched the desperate asylum seekers loaded off the ramshackle boats that are guided by a naval escort into Flying Fish Cove. He’s visited the detainees — one every day for a week, because the man was on the brink of suicide. “The effect of locking refugees up in Australia has been a total disaster,” he said. “The psychological damage is permanent for many, because the detention is lengthy.”
Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship says mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive unlawfully by boat, often without documentation, is needed to maintain its border security.
“It’s about detention for the shortest period of time with the greatest respect for human dignity in keeping with a very entrenched duty of care,” said Bruce Needham, regional manager of detention operations in Western Australia and the man who helped set up the Christmas Island centre in 2008.
While the average time people are held in detention has been reduced significantly — from 277 days a year ago to 83 days as of September — detention for the “shortest period of time” is still far from reality.
Of the more than 9,300 people in immigration detention as of the end of September, 936 had been there for more than a year.
The Department of Immigration concedes that the remote facility — with limited access to mental-health services, refugee support groups and visitors — should only be used for initial processing before asylum seekers are transferred to detention centres on the mainland.
Those who have spent a considerable amount of time on Christmas Island say they carry deep scars.
“I suffer very badly in detention,” said Murtaza Ali Jafari, a Hazara refugee who spent six months in the Northwest Point detention centre, followed by 20 months in Villawood detention centre outside Sydney.
“Christmas Island, it’s a very bad place. Lots of problem there,” he said. “It’s too far from Australia. A lot of other detainees were very hopeless. You can’t do anything. You can’t ask someone to help us here.”
Because of its remote location, detainees don’t get as many visitors, something that can be asylum seekers’ only lifeline.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said there’s also a lack of proper scrutiny of immigration-detention facilities in remote corners of Australia.
“That’s the whole purpose of it — it’s about putting it out of sight, out of mind in a remote location, so that you don’t have that transparency, so you can’t put that human face to the individual person who is being detained.”
Tensions high for detained refugees
Inside the Christmas Island centre, about 8 a.m. one muggy September morning, dozens of men are lined up at the canteen waiting to buy cigarettes, chips or other amenities using points they earn by participating in classes or volunteer activities.
Some smile at the immigration and Serco officers as they walk by. One man sits against the wall, his head slumped over and resting on his knees. A man in his 20s wearing a polo shirt and jeans sings along to the music in his MP3 player.
Half a dozen men are in front of the computers in the Internet room, most using Facebook or email to connect with friends and family. A dirt pathway, lined with old volleyballs half buried in the ground, leads to the education rooms, where a schedule lists times for beginner, intermediate and advanced English classes.
The library is lit by bright florescent lights and the shelves are stacked with English dictionaries for Pashtuns, Tamils, Farsi and many others.
In the middle of the compound is a green space with soccer and volleyball courts.
Women, children and families are held at what’s known as Construction Camp, a lower-security facility several kilometres away, next to the island’s recreation centre.
Inside the gate, a thin girl plays with her long black hair and waits while her brother uses the payphone, located under a sign that says “10 minute maximum.” A little girl who looks to be about three sits cross-legged in the corridor of a housing block, and feeds her toddler brother rice. Two boys play on the monkey bars of a brand-new playground, while scarves and babies’ underwear hang on a fence to dry.
At the time of the Times Colonist’s visit on Sept. 5, there were 368 detainees at Construction Camp and another 841 males at Northwest Point, which was built to house less than half that number — 400 people. The department of immigration said “contingency capacity” — which at times has meant tents in the yard and cots inside the gymnasium — is more than 1,100.
In fact, there was a time last year when up to 2,000 detainees were behind the wire, with men sleeping on mats in the education compound and anywhere else there was space. The visitor room was converted into a suicide-watch room, where detainees who were mentally unstable and at their breaking point were monitored by guards. The Serco officers are armed with special knives to cut people down if they try and hang themselves with their bed sheets.
“It was just chaos,” said Kaye Bernard, who was president of the Christmas Island workers’ union at the time.
The situation reached a crisis point on March 11, 2011, when 200 detainees rioted, hurling rocks and setting fire to buildings and tents. Some detainees dug shallow graves to symbolize their hopelessness.
Australian Federal Police stormed the detention centre and fired rubber bullets in an effort to control the situation.
A consultant’s report five months earlier had warned the immigration department that the severe overcrowding could lead to a serious incident, but the information didn’t reach the immigration minister.
The riots caused $2.5 million in damage. A month later, riots in the Villawood detention centre outside Sydney cost another $6 million.
One of the men who was there during the riots — whose name has been changed because he fears repurcussions from the Department of Immigration — said the unrest was a symptom of people “going mad” in detention.
Babak, who now lives in Perth, was held for 20 months and said he emerged from detention a shell of the man he was when he fled Iran.
He arrived on Christmas Island in the summer of 2010 on a wooden boat about the size of the living room he’s sitting in, carrying about 50 people. “It wasn’t a boat — it was a piece of wood,” he said.
In the time Babak was in detention, he witnessed people trying to hang themselves on multiple occasions. In once instance, detainees had to cut someone down from a bed-sheet noose before a guard could arrive. He would see the red slash marks on the arms and necks of detainees who had cut themselves.
“I’ve seen with my eyes they do that. I’ve seen they have injuries on their body. They want to show their anger, but they hurt themselves, not another person. And seeing those cuts on their body you think, ‘How can you forget that situation?’ I can’t forget.”
Babak was one of those who tried to take his own life. He had to be cut down by centre staff when he tied his bed sheets into a noose and jumped from the roof of a second-storey building.
He considers himself a strong person who is mentally stable, but after eight or nine months in detention with no exit date in sight, even the strongest start to break down, he said.
“After a short time, you think ‘What am I doing here?’ They treated you like a terrorist, like a robber, like a wild person. So that environment has got effect on people.”
He calls his experience in detention “torture.”
A year ago, Babak was granted refugee status, but he was held for another five months on Christmas Island before he was finally released.
He holds up a picture of himself the day he was released from detention in early 2012. He’s wearing a blue collared shirt and has a weary smile on his face. Deep lines cut into the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, making him look a decade older than his 29 years.
Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship has promised to process people through Christmas Island much quicker, because of a mountain of research that shows mental health begins to erode after just three months in detention, heightening the risk of self harm and attempted suicide.
Sandi Logan, chief spokesman for the department, points to the myriad programs to alleviate the stress of detention. There are English classes, gym facilities, soccer leagues, outings to the pool and volunteer opportunities. For example, a group of detainees recently helped restore a gun implacement near Tai Jin House, the original home of the island administrator.
“We recognize that detention is an environment where people’s liberty is being taken from them, but at the same time, maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle while in detention is absolutely essential,” Logan said. “We ensure an activities program at every detention centre addresses both the physical and mental well-being of the clients.”
But during the Times Colonist’s visit, immigration officials who spoke on background said tensions at the Christmas Island facility were higher than normal — they called it “small pockets of unrest” — because men who arrived after Aug. 13 were told they could be processed offshore on the Micronesian island of Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, the Australian government’s latest strategy to deter boat arrivals.
Offshore processing was first introduced by former Prime Minister John Howard after the Tampa affair in August 2001, when the government refused to allow 438 refugees rescued by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to land on Australian soil. The refugees, including women and children, mainly Hazara, had to be rescued when their 20-metre wooden fishing boat became stranded in international waters about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island.
The Howard government removed Christmas Island from Australia's migration zone so that any vessels that arrived there had to be processed offshore on a third country, striking a deal with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to allow a processing and detention centre there.
The Pacific Solution was repealed in 2007 when the Australian Labor Party took office. The Nauru detention camp was in crisis. Two years before, a psychiatrist warned the immigration department of a high suicide risk among 27 asylum seekers who had been on the island for four years.
“We had 283 people left there for over three years, including 93 children. [We] had 45 people airlifted out because they became so suicidal, another 45 men go on hunger strike for four weeks, including people stitching their lips together,” said Kon Karapanagiotidis, a refugee rights advocate and founder of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre in Melbourne. “It was a humanitarian disaster.”
After the Pacific Solution was repealed, the detention centre on Nauru was closed and any asylum seekers who arrived by boat were held initially on Christmas Island, then trasferred to mainland Australia.
The recent reinstatement of offshore processing, along with a two-decade policy of mandatory detention, have had little effect on stemming the flow of boats, which continue to ferry people to Christmas and nearby Cocos Island.
In a sterile white room, a line of Serco officers wearing white gloves is processing a group of seven Tamil asylum seekers who arrived on Cocos Island by boat four days earlier.
Their possessions, apparently no more than a shopping bag and a ravaged backpack each, are piled up on a wooden table at the side of the room.
They wear plain T-shirts, black shorts and flip flops and lanyards around their necks holding an ID card with their photo. One man who looks to be in his 30s has deep bags under his eyes and dark stubble on his thin face. Three of them sit in chairs across the table from three Serco guards, signing forms in the Tamil language. They’re given fresh clothes and a USB stick so they can download necessary documents they may have saved online.
They may have survived the boat journey, but their future is still uncertain. They don’t know how long they’ll be kept in detention, or whether they’ll be sent to wait in the scorching tent city on Nauru.
Julian Burnside, an Australian barrister and strong advocates for refugees, said Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has tarnished its international reputation.
“I think it’s horrible that our supposedly compassionate response to that is to say, ‘What we’ll do is treat them badly enough, others won’t dare ask for our help,’ ” Burnside said.
“And that is Australia’s deterrent policy, treat them badly enough, others will not follow. Mandatory detention, if it’s indefinite and if it’s intended as a deterrent, is probably about as bad as it gets. There’s no decent justification of it at all.”