In 2001 Christmas Island became synonymous with Australia’s hard-line refugee policy after former conservative Prime Minister John Howard turned away a Norwegian tanker, the Tampa, carrying shipwrecked asylum seekers.
Nine years later, the island – an Australian external territory 1,600 miles northwest of Perth – is again in the spotlight, as asylum policy once again becomes a political football.
In Australia, which intermittently receives boatloads of refugees fleeing war and poverty in neighboring countries, the issue is always a sensitive one, but never more so than in an election year.
The Labor government, accused of being “soft” on border protection following a flurry of asylum-seeker boat arrivals on the island, has announced a freeze of up to six months on the processing of new refugee claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans cited improved security conditions in the two countries when announcing the move last month. However, critics noted that the move followed the interception of dozens of boats in Australian waters this year, and revelations that an immigration detention center on Christmas Island is overflowing.
'Tough but compassionate'
After Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007, he abolished some of Mr. Howard’s more controversial measures, such as sending asylum seekers to the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing, and granting refugees five-year rather than permanent visas.
However, as part of an immigration policy that Mr. Rudd has called “tough but compassionate,” his government continued the practice of preventing “boat people” from setting foot on the mainland. Christmas Island, where a detention center was built after the Tampa incident, became the centerpiece of that policy, with all “illegal” arrivals taken to the remote, tropical territory for processing.
Designed to accommodate at most 800 people, the center currently holds about 2,000, with the excess housed in prefabricated huts and air-conditioned tents. The government has been forced to fly some detainees to the mainland, where it recently reopened a Howard-era facility in Western Australia.
That action has provoked more criticism from human rights groups and refugee advocates, who claim that the isolated Curtin center – the site of riots and suicide attempts in the past – is unsuitable for its purpose. Zachary Steel, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, described it recently as “a psychiatric catastrophe.”
Dr. Steel, who carried out a mental health study at the center, uncovered a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorders among children.
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.”
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.