The Coalition's expensive Christmas Island legacy

Asylum seekers Offshore detention Immigration detention Australia Christmas Island

Within the next couple of weeks, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will be handed the keys to Australia’s newest detention facility, the Christmas Island Immigration and Reception Centre. The Howard government facility has not come cheap: a staggering four hundred million dollars of public money has been spent constructing this 800-person detention facility. Yet only four hundred people are held in immigration detention centres across Australia and no one is currently being detained in Christmas Island’s existing facility.

Most Australians could be forgiven for knowing little about the new centre. Christmas Island is so far away that it may as well be part of Indonesia. It lies 320 kilometres south of Java and 2630 kilometres northwest of Perth. The island has about 1400 permanent residents. It is best known for the annual red crab migration, when millions of tiny crabs make the dangerous journey from the island’s jungle to the sea. But dangerous journeys and migratory movements are not confined to the crab world on Christmas Island. Since the early 1990s, Christmas Island has been the first port of call for many asylum seekers who escaped persecution in their homelands and made the perilous journey across the Indian Ocean in the hope of being allowed to settle in Australia.

In the wake of the Tampa crisis, the Howard government created the so-called Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers would be detained and processed off-shore, in Papua New Guinea or on Nauru. The aim was to deter and punish people who tried to exercise their right to claim asylum, a universal right bestowed on all human beings. The government also introduced legislation to excise Christmas Island and other islands from the migration zone. In 2002, it announced that it would construct a 1200-person detention centre, at an estimated cost of $197.7 million. By claiming that its construction was a matter of urgency, the government prevented the proposal from being scrutinised by the Public Works Committee. By February 2003, when the number of boat arrivals had been reduced to a trickle, the government scaled down the plans and decided that the facility would need to have a capacity of only 800 beds. But the costs kept going up. To date, Australian taxpayers have had to fork out almost twice as much as was initially budgeted.

For the past few years I have visited Christmas Island regularly. I have met many local residents and witnessed the construction of the centre. Locals have explained to me that “expense was no drama” and “huge amounts of money have been thrown about the place by the government” which they have found “mind-boggling.” It is understandable why many islanders have formed this opinion. The facilities of the IRPC are equivalent to those you may find in a small town. It contains a medical centre, which is believed to be better equipped than the island’s own medical centre, and has tennis courts with stainless steel nets, basketball courts, a gym, a football field, a salon and a recreational sewing room.

The Howard government was not afraid to spend millions of dollars to ensure that this would be a maximum-security detention centre. It contains lockdown zones, which allow staff to separate detainees from one another, and has CCTV directly linked to Canberra. It is heavily guarded by two fences with high-tech detection systems. Apparently much consideration was given to previous problems associated with detaining people. To prevent detainees from hanging themselves, for instance, shower fixtures are positioned on sharp angles and the hooks behind cell doors flick down when too much pressure is placed on them. The building is built low into the ground to prevent detainees from seeing beyond the tropical jungle walls of the detention centre. It is troubling to think about how this maximum-security island detention centre may affect the mental health of those detained there.

Since Labor has come into power Australia’s asylum policy has changed. The detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have been shut down and the Pacific Solution has been scrapped. While the Rudd government ought to be applauded for abolishing the Pacific Solution, it remains to be seen what it will do in relation to the new Christmas Island facility. Immigration Minister Chris Evans has said that no children and families will be held in detention. Essentially, this means that the centre will be of little use if there were a mass influx of boat arrivals similar to that in 2000 and 2001 - an influx inevitably including families including children. Where would families be accommodated? The government maintains its policy is “fair but firm”. But how fair is firm if future asylum seekers are detained in a place that is so remote that they will have limited access to support networks and lawyers? What measures will be put in place to ensure that asylum seekers will not be left to rot on Christmas Island as they were on Nauru? And can it be feasible financially to open a detention centre when there is not one person held in detention on Christmas Island and the numbers on the mainland are comparatively small, and look like remaining so?

While the Howard government had to turn to the Pacific to overcome the challenges created by its uncompromising stance, the Rudd government has a different problem to contend with: how to find a use for a four hundred million dollar island detention centre so that this project has not been a total waste of taxpayers’ money.

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