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Sagging in polls, Australia's government toughens stance on asylum seekers

Australia's Labor government, which recently fell behind in the polls for the first time since taking power, has imposed a freeze on asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

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Chris Sidoti, a human rights lawyer who visited Curtin before it was mothballed in 2002, told The Age newspaper this month: “People had nothing to do. It was a lethal recipe for depression and unrest.”

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But with Labor behind in the polls for the first time since coming to power, according to two consecutive surveys this month in The Australian newspaper, the government is under pressure to prove its credentials on border protection. With an eye to the election, it has already ditched unpopular policies such as a proposed Emissions Trading Scheme and announced a new tax on the “super profits” of mining companies.

Although Australians have in the past expressed strong antipathy toward asylum seekers arriving by boat, the government's poll ratings did not improve after the announcement of the freeze on Afghans and Sri Lankans – indicating, perhaps, that the issue is nowadays less of a concern.

Defined by detention

On Christmas Island itself, residents are divided on the matter but also weary of it.

The Island used to be known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, thanks to its profusion of endemic species, including native red crabs which stage a spectacular annual migration from the rainforest to the ocean.

Many of the 1,200 locals – most of them descendants of indentured workers brought over from China and Southeast Asia in the 19th century to work in the phosphate mines – say they are fed up with their home being used as a political football. They also worry that the island's prison island image will set back their attempts to establish an ecotourism industry.

“This is an incarnation of Christmas Island I don’t really approve of,” says Simon Prince, who runs a dive operation. “My opinion is that these are people needing our help. I’ve been involved in rescues [at sea] in the past, and generally they’ve got a tragic story to tell.”

“I would like the place to be known for what it’s best for – as a pristine wilderness, both above and below the water, and as one of the last frontiers of nature,” he adds.

With hundreds of Immigration Department staff on the island, residents also complain that they can no longer afford rents, which have been driven up because of an accommodation squeeze.

Gordon Haye, Christmas’s one taxi driver, says: “My brother and his son are living in a little shed because they can’t afford a house. I know of a family with two kids living in a laundry [room] the back of someone’s house.”

However, with the phosphate industry waning, and tourism yet to take off, the island – closer to Indonesia than Australia – has become dependent on jobs and income generated by the detention center. “We have a detention economy on the island,” says Gordon Thomson, president of the shire council.

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