Growing Christmas Island Troubles
IMAGE: In detention, you can still see Tampa. A street name on Christmas Island, against the backdrop of community detention. Thanks to Frank Brennan. (click for large version)
It started all so subtle, and immediately after the November 2007 Federal election.
The Rudd government closed John Howard's Pacific Solution, where Australia warehoused and processed asylum seekers in foreign nations such as Nauru.
Half a year later, more than 50 representatives of welfare and advocacy organisations were 'cordially' invited to visit Christmas Island to see for themselves that this government was open and accountable.
Project SafeCom was not invited and, on consideration, we thought it was a massive attempt to silence - through 'collaborative co-option' - the independence and the 'vocal nuisance' of the 'refugee lobby' that had fiercely developed during the Howard years.
Just before the visit, Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans, at a lecture at ANU in 2008, had announced important new principles in detention of 'unannounced and boat-faring' asylum seekers.
All the while, there was quiet embarrassment in government ranks about using the $450 million super-secure 800-bed detention centre built during the Howard years on the island. Other existing facilities were used, and during the August 2008 advocates' visit, the razor-wired Gulag, with cages in the cage, was empty.
Then, at the end of November 2008, the Immigration Department made the announcement that the Gulag was 'open for business' - even while there was considerable bed-space in the other facilities on the island. It was rather predictable.
With the generally good attitude of the Rudd government's Immigration Minister Chris Evans many were now waiting for the final report of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Migration, which was tabled in Parliament in August 2009.
But while their Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention condemned the caged walkways, perspex barriers and electrified fencing in John Howard's Gulag, how disappointing was the reply to the report by the Immigration Minister. He almost wholeheartedly dismissed the bipartisan recommendations.
What's on this page
Fr Frank Brennan, Convenor of the Australian Human Rights Consultation, visited Christmas Island just before the Standing Committee on Migration's August report was tabled in Parliament. His article from The Age is reprinted below, followed by the media reporting following the tabling of the Committee's Report.
11 January 2009: Rudd government opens John Howard's Gulag - The horrendous centre suddenly had to be opened. In early December 2008, just before the Immigration Minister Chris Evans was due to retire on his Christmas holidays, there was talk in the immigration department, duly 'leaked' to the media, that "another seventy" arrivals should be expected soon, and a week after this information became public, just before Christmas, it was announced that the 800-bed Gulag was open for business.
16 August 2008: Welcome to our Christmas Island Gulag, says Immigration - In an unprecedented move, The "new mugs" immigration department invited more than 50 community representatives, working with NGO's who work with asylum seekers and refugees, to 'inspect' Australia's Island Gulag on Christmas Island. While the general flyer sent to the invited guests stated 'no photographs in detention centres', they were told on arrival that taking pictures was fine and we received more than 50 images from one of the many invited guests. Here they are, together with the reaction of those delegates who were invited to the trip: condemnation was handed out liberally, all around.
1 August 2008: Petro Georgiou endorses Labor's detention softening - Project SafeCom's first reaction to Labor's announcement of major detention changes mentioned the notion of "smoke and mirrors", and now that the dust of initial reaction has settled, more in-depth reflections on the changes are what's needed. This page brings together some of these opinions, starting with Petro Georgiou, and then pieces by The Australian's Mike Steketee and Denis Shanahan.
29 July 2008: Immigration Minister Chris Evans announces mandatory detention changes - Suddenly, a major shift in our treatment of asylum seekers has been announced ... The Immigration Minister's speech was comprehensive and announced a shift from a blanket mandatory detention policy to a selective mandatory detention platform, welcome news indeed. Regrettably, while these changes in approach to detention are substantial, and on some level represent even a retreat from Labor's intent with its mandatory detention as introduced in 1992, Labor maintains its "underclass" of unannounced boat arrivals...
It's not Christmas on this island home
On Thursday, another 77 asylum seekers were intercepted in the Indian Ocean headed for Australia. They will be held on Christmas Island while their refugee claims are determined. I was there last week and saw up close the operation of the new Federal Government policy on detention of asylum seekers who arrive by boat without visas.
Christmas Island has a permanent population of 1400, 45 per cent of whom are Chinese and 20 per cent Malay. In recent months, the population has almost doubled. There are now more than 700 asylum seekers on the island, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan and Tamils from Sri Lanka. Six hundred are single males held in the immigration detention centre 23 kilometres from town. More than 100 live in family groups and are in "community detention" at the old "Construction Site" a few kilometres out of town. They are free to come and go. Unaccompanied minors live in town in house groups of four or five with a carer. There is a burgeoning population of people coming from the mainland to work at the detention centre, including public servants, guards and service deliverers.
The Christmas Island community seems generally impressed with the way immigration officers are liaising with other agencies (especially the school, Red Cross, "Alive", and "Life without Borders") to ensure good delivery of services to asylum seekers and to minimise misunderstandings in the local community. Those who know about the bad old days at Woomera and Baxter believe things have got off to a much better start on Christmas Island.
Since Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced the new policy a year ago, the new detention centre has been almost filled. Evans believes that "the retention of mandatory detention on arrival of unauthorised arrivals for the purpose of health, identity and security checks is a sound and responsible public policy". He rightly asserts, however, that "once checks have been successfully completed, continued detention while immigration status is resolved is unwarranted".
There are problems with trying to implement this policy on an island four hours' flying time from Perth where the number of asylum seekers and outside workers may soon match the local population.
The detention period could be expected to coincide with the three months required for the average visa determination, including the conduct of any appeal. But some people are in detention for nine months and more. It strains the definitions to claim that the detention of someone for up to nine months is primarily related to health, identity and security issues. According to the policy, adult single males whose identities are established and who are known not to be a health or security risk should be released into the community either on the island or on the mainland. The policy risks morphing into detention for the course of processing.
Minors in community detention on Christmas Island do not have any independent legal guardian appointed for them, which means fly-in legal advisers cannot be adequately instructed. Many minors in community detention were with a trusted adult relative on the boat. There is little contact possible once that relative is held in detention 23 kilometres out of town. The relative is never allowed out, and the minor has little opportunity to visit.
Community detention for families at Construction Site and accommodation of minors with carers in town is theoretically fine, but there are some signs of strain in practice. The local community is small and does not include members from the ethnic or cultural groups of these asylum seekers. There is resentment by some local residents that those in community detention are too well provided for with food and allowances, while little is done to help locals.
There are only two torture and trauma professionals on the island and they have a caseload of 180. Once health, security and identity issues are determined, there may be strong grounds for moving people with persistent counselling needs to the mainland for the remainder of their processing. While the Government has a laudable policy not to hold persons in need of counselling in detention centres, this objective is difficult to achieve when there is no realistic opportunity for professionals even to make assessments, let alone deliver counselling.
There is also an acute shortage of accommodation, given the need for the employment of a large number of people from the mainland on short-term contracts. There is little to do (especially at night) for the many young people who are coming from the mainland.
There is no induction program for these people to familiarise themselves with island life. Many locals are convinced that food prices and availability are adversely affected. They say that some of those employed as guards have a tendency to drink too much and to get into fights in the evening. Public servants and community residents are trying hard to make this policy work without the benefit of mainland services and conveniences. But the strain is already showing on this small Australian outpost.
Father Frank Brennan is National Human Rights Consultation chairman and author of Tampering with Asylum (University of Queensland Press).
Scores of new asylum seekers detected
SOME 77 asylum seekers are heading to Christmas Island, raising concerns that detainees have inadequate access to mental health care as the remote detention centre fills up.
The most recent boat arrivals, believed to be fleeing Sri Lanka, will join 660 asylum seekers waiting for health, identity and security checks on the island.
That number includes 66 women and 21 children, who are kept out of the most prison-like facility, which holds 800.
Yesterday, Professor Louise Newman from the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology said the island was housing a fragile population, many of whom had fled political persecution and torture.
"Christmas Island is clearly remote and there are significant challenges in providing for the mental health needs of these people, particularly unaccompanied young people," she said.
Professor Newman recently visited the island and is preparing a report on the mental health of detainees. "I'm not in the view that we should turn detention centres into hospitals," she said. "We have to make sure that we can identify those suffering psychiatric disability and get them into appropriate treatment facilities."
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said worsening situations in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Pakistan had forced millions of desperate people to flee their own countries and seek safety.
"We will continue to see boat arrivals in Australia while these conflicts are ongoing and while people continue to flee war and persecution," he said.
Since the Rudd Government came to power in November 2007, 24 boats have brought 1051 refugees to Australia.
A spokesman for Senator Evans said there were mental health nurses, a resident psychologist and specialist trauma and torture counsellors available for people in detention on Christmas Island.
Calls for overhaul of immigration detention
news.com.au / AAP
Serious concerns have been raised about the standard of accommodation at immigration detention facilities, prompting calls for detainees to be placed in residential housing.
Many detention centres also have disproportionate and antiquated security measures, a federal parliamentary inquiry has found.
The Joint Standing Committee on Migration has made a raft of recommendations in its third and final report into immigration detention in Australia.
The committee found that the standard of the accommodation and facilities provided at immigration detention centres was of serious concern, in particular at Villawood in Sydney and Perth.
It has recommended that the reconstruction of Stage 1 at Villawood proceed as a priority and that the Perth detention centre be replaced with a purpose built long-term facility.
The standard of accommodation at some centres was so poor that the committee also recommended that detainees be placed in residential housing instead of a detention centre.
"The standard of the accommodation and facilities provided at many immigration detention centres were of a serious concern," committee chair Michael Danby said.
"The committee has therefore recommended that detention in immigration residential housing should be used in lieu of detention in immigration detention centres, provided that is feasible," he said.
The committee also recommended that all caged walkways, perspex barriers and electrified fencing be removed from the North West Point immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, and that barbed wire fencing be removed from all immigration detention centres.
Mr Danby said the federal government had made positive steps towards introducing more appropriate and humane accommodation facilities.
"We have an obligation to both the Australian and international community to ensure that all people in immigration detention are treated humanely and fairly," he said.
The report, tabled in federal parliament today, also recommends there be improved transparency of immigration detention facilities including giving the media greater access to all immigration detention facilities.
Calls for detention centre overhaul
ABC NEWS ONLINE
A joint parliamentary committee has raised serious concerns about the quality of accommodation and security at Australian immigration detention centres.
The Joint Standing Committee on Migration has called for the removal of razor wire from detention centres and called for more use of community housing for asylum seekers.
The committee's third report on Australia's immigration system also says the media should have better access to detention centres to improve transparency.
Committee chairman Michael Danby says security in the existing centres is antiquated and the committee has recommended immediate changes.
"The reconstruction of stage one at Villawood and upgrade of the Perth immigration detention centre, the removal of all caged walkways, electrified fencing at the North West Point immigration detention centre and the removal of razor wire from other immigration detention," he said.
But Immigration Minister Chris Evans says the Perth immigration detention centre has already been upgraded.
Senator Evans said the Government has been working on removing razor wire from the facilities.
"Most of it has gone except for the high-security section at Villawood," he said.
"That's where we house quite serious criminals awaiting deportation. We're hoping to get rid of that too as we put new arrangements in place, but the razor wire has generally gone."
Senator Evans also says the North West Point centre is a critical part of Australia's border protection strategy.
He says it was built as a high-security facility and would cost too much to change.
Heavy immigration detention centre security stays
news.com.au / AAP
The Rudd Government has no plans to reduce security at the Christmas Island detention centre despite an inquiry finding measures employed at the facility are draconian and over the top.
In its third and final report into immigration detention in Australia, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration has raised serious concerns about the standard of accommodation in detention facilities.
The report also raises concerns about the level of security at some centres, particularly at the North West Point facility on Christmas Island.
"The standard of the accommodation and facilities provided at immigration detention centres was of a serious concern, particularly Stage 1 at Villawood and the Perth immigration centre," the report said.
"Many detention facilities also have disproportionate and antiquated security measures such as razor/barbed wire, in particular at the North West Point immigration detention centre on Christmas Island."
Included in a raft of recommendations is for all caged walkways, perspex barriers and electrified fencing be removed from the North West Point detention centre, and that barbed wire fencing be removed from all immigration detention centres.
However, Immigration Minister Chris Evans dismissed the possibility of making any significant changes to the Christmas Island centre, saying it would be too costly.
"The detention centre on Christmas Island is an integral part of Australia's border protection regime and is the only large, secure immigration detention facility available other than the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney," Senator Evans said.
"The Christmas Island detention centre was built as a high security facility by the previous government at a cost of $400 million and to make significant alterations now would be financially unfeasible."
The Rudd government was committed to maintaining its policy that all illegal boat arrivals were detained and processed at Christmas Island while health, identity and security checks are undertaken, Senator Evans said.
"The Labor party went to the last election with a commitment to maintain a system of mandatory detention and offshore processing on Christmas Island for all irregular maritime arrivals and these commitments are being met."
Joint Standing Committee on Migration chairman Michael Danby said the poor standard of accommodation at detention centres supported the case that detainees instead be placed in residential housing.
"The standard of the accommodation and facilities provided at many immigration detention centres were of a serious concern," Mr Danby said.
"The committee has therefore recommended that detention in immigration residential housing should be used in lieu of detention in immigration detention centres, provided that is feasible."
The committee also recommended that the reconstruction of Stage 1 at Villawood be a priority and that the Perth detention centre be replaced with a purpose-built, long-term facility.
Detention bill reopens split over asylum seekers
Sydney Morning Herald
The Opposition will vote in the Senate against Labor's planned detention reforms as Liberal fissures opened again over the treatment of asylum seekers.
The Opposition spokeswoman on immigration, Sharman Stone, said the party would seek amendments to the bill, which is designed to give people more time to claim asylum and grant more independence to detainees while their cases were assessed.
The Opposition has consistently linked changes announced by the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, last year with a surge in boat arrivals.
But a parliamentary committee, which includes the Liberal MP, Danna Vale, and the Labor senator, Anne McEwen, said the Government's detention practices were too harsh. Prison-like detention centres, such as the $400 million compound at Christmas Island, should be used only when no other option was available, the committee said.
It also called for more transparency, including publication on the department's website of the number of men, women and children detained at any time.
"We have an obligation to both the Australian and international community to ensure that all people in immigration detention are treated humanely and fairly," said the committee chairman, Labor MP Michael Danby.
In a dissenting report the Liberal moderate, Petro Georgiou, attacked the Government's continued detention of children, saying all minors and their families should be freed from "facilities euphemistically described as alternative and family style".
"It must be made very clear that both immigration residential housing and transit accommodation are closed, secure environments where detainees are closely monitored by guards and are not allowed to freely come and go," he said.
The Greens senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, was also disappointed by the report. She demanded the Government resume control over detention centre management to create a direct line of accountability for what happened inside.
The Government recently broke an election promise by awarding a five-year management contract to Serco, a private contractor.
Dr Stone, a committee member since last November, refused to endorse any of the findings, calling them "a stab in the dark" due to the lack of evidence provided.
Repeated attempts to visit Christmas Island after the surge in boat arrivals began were rejected and the department failed to provide a detailed breakdown on how much detention cost, she said.
"This makes a meaningful discussion ... impossible," she wrote in a separate report.
Yesterday Senator Evans said he was committed to mandatory detention and offshore processing.
"The detention centre on Christmas Island is ... the only large, secure immigration detention facility available other than the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney," he said.
The detention reform bill is expected to reach the Senate next month.
A bill to stop charging refugees for their detention is expected to be passed this week.
Coalition split on asylum seekers
The Coalition has split over immigration detention in a turbulent party-room debate, with Liberal senator Judith Troeth vowing to cross the floor to let belated asylum seekers win rights to paid work and Medicare.
Hardening their stance on Labor's latest moves to alter immigration and citizenship laws, the conservative parties yesterday resolved to retain mandatory detention for most asylum seekers and rules that require a detained asylum seeker to be guarded on any outings.
But Liberal MPs Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan spoke strongly against the position proposed by the shadow ministry.
Ms Moylan warned anyone tempted to do so that it was unacceptable to play hardball politics with vulnerable people.
Mr Broadbent told the meeting there were no votes to be gained.
West Australian Liberal Don Randall argued that changes such as letting people lodge asylum claims more than 45 days after arriving in Australia would "open the floodgates", and he urged the Coalition to stand up.
But Senator Troeth said the ban on work rights or Medicare access for anyone whose claim was lodged after 45 days had left some asylum seekers "living in squalor" and reliant on charity - even when they wanted to work.
"If Labor are prepared to abolish that rule, I am prepared to support it," she told The Age later.
Former immigration minister Kevin Andrews and backbenchers Wilson Tuckey, Alby Schultz and Alex Hawke argued strongly in favour of opposing several of Labor's proposed changes.
And in a pointed exchange, former immigration minister Philip Ruddock charged that changes to immigration laws when Labor was last in office had been part of the catalyst for the rise of Hansonism.
The Coalition resolved to oppose Labor's move to scrap the 45-day limit on asylum seekers being granted work rights and access to Medicare.
Labor has also sought to exempt people with a temporary psychological disorder caused by trauma or torture from having to sit the citizenship test.
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said the Coalition would oppose that move, citing fears an exemption could be used to stop some women from learning English in order to sit the test.
The most contentious changes are to the migration bill. These seek to remove mandatory detention for some asylum seekers who arrive on other valid visas; remove the ability of the immigration minister to "play God", by delegating more powers to public servants; and allow detainees to attend funerals or visit doctors without an escort.
Ms Stone signalled the Coalition would insist on its amendments to block those aspects of the bill.
She said the community would be concerned that scrapping guards would be a "lack of security" and could lead to people "disappearing without a trace".
Australian detention inhumane - Amnesty
A rights watchdog today condemned Australia's decision to continue holding refugees in a high-security offshore detention centre despite an official report calling the practice "inhumane".
Amnesty International said the Government should close the Christmas Island facility, in the Indian Ocean, after a parliamentary committee slammed its security measures as excessive.
"It is unconscionable for the Government to continue to promote its policies as humane when detainees are held in conditions described by the committee as 'extreme and inhumane'," said Graham Thom, Amnesty's Australia refugee campaign co-ordinator.
Australia has intercepted 17 boats carrying hundreds of asylum seekers since January, and most are housed at Christmas Island, 2600 km from Perth.
The joint standing committee on migration yesterday expressed disquiet at conditions on the island and called for the locking-up of asylum seekers to end where they could be housed in the community.
"The committee was appalled at the extraordinarily high level of security... and considers this security to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the current immigration principles," it said in a report to Parliament.
"The level of security in terms of the height of the electrified fences, surveillance and the segregation of staff from detainees was considered to be excessive and inhumane and bordering on ludicrous," it added.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the Government remained committed to detaining and processing illegal arrivals at the facility.
He also refused to remove the electrified razor-wire fences and caged walkways as recommended by the committee, saying major alterations would be financially unfeasible.
Amnesty said the stance was inconsistent with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's commitment to a "more humane" refugee policy.
"Excessive security measures combined with the extraordinary ongoing maintenance costs associated with the size of the immigration detention centre require careful consideration as to whether this type of facility is still an appropriate part of a contemporary immigration framework," the report said.
Detainees allowed out with chaperone
Detainees inside Christmas Island's high-security immigration detention centre are being allowed out without guards under a system in which island residents become chaperones for approved excursions.
The designated persons program allows residents of the small Australian territory, 2300km northwest of Perth, to collect detainees from the detention centre and escort them around the island for picnics, cultural events and outings.
The program at the $400million immigration detention centre is viewed by refugee advocates as an important step forward for those in the 800-bed facility, which was built with electric fences in the jungle 23km from the island's main settlement.
The Rudd government last year decided not to use a visiting area fitted out with glass dividers that prevent any contact between visitors and detainees and many visits are now conducted in open-air areas inside the compound.
One detainee to benefit from the program is Sri Lankan Buddhist Sarath Tennakoon, who will today be taken by a local woman to one of the island's 12 Taoist temples to pray.
The Australian was yesterday granted a visit with Mr Tennakoon, 38, inside the detention centre, where he likened himself to a frog.
"I am like the frog in the well -- I can go round and round and look up to the sky above but I cannot get out," he said through an interpreter.
Speaking in visiting room number 5, at the edge of the compound where 623 mostly Afghani men play soccer and cricket each afternoon, Mr Tennakoon said he spent his days reading and practising English.
But he did not join in games very often, preferring instead to walk the compound alone or to seek out a fellow detainee with an English-Sinhalese dictionary to decipher difficult words he had encountered while reading in the library.
He said that after more than eight months in the detention centre, it was difficult being with other detainees, because they would ask if he had received word on his case yet.
"I don't like to think about it because if I think about it I would go crazy," he said.
The food in the detention centre was good, he said, but he was used to very hot dishes and was pleased recently when a visitor brought him a jar of chilli sauce to add to meals.
He was allowed to call his mother, but tended not to because it just upset her.
Mr Tennakoon has told the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that his life was in danger after he was identified by the Tamils Tigers as a member of the air force intelligence unit in 2002.
Last October, he fled Sri Lanka on a fishing boat that reached Western Australia's Shark Bay, but has since been refused a protection visa.
The Refugee Review Tribunal endorsed that decision and Mr Tennakoon is now pinning his hopes on intervention by Immigration Minister Chris Evans.
He said he shared the detention centre's Gold 2 block with Afghanis who were all friendly, but nobody revealed much about their angst.
"I dont tell them my mental problems, and they don't tell me," he said.