Christmas Island detention centre reopened

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Australian Government's Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, where seven West Timorese Asylum Seekers are currently detained, including children.

Australia's Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has been reopened to detain a group of seven Indonesian asylum seekers. The Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) said four men, one woman and two infants from West Timor were taken from Darwin to the remote detention facility, 2,600km north-west of Perth on November 17.

The group arrived on a small boat at Honeymoon Beach, near Kalumburu a remote Aboriginal community on the northern coast of Western Australia's far north, on November 5. Locals were startled when three of the men waded ashore to ask for directions to the nearest city. After returning to sea with directions to Wyndham, 400km south-east of Kalumburu, the Australian Navy's HMAS Geraldton caught up with the group and tethered their boat alongside. The group were taken into detention in Darwin.

The Australian government enforces a policy of mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals. Christmas Island is an Australian Territory, its closest neighbour is Java, 360km away.

DIMIA, which had originally planned to deport the group, say the West Timorese will remain on Christmas Island while their claims for refugee protection are assessed. "The group was going to be removed having initially not raised claims or information engaging Australia's protection obligations, but since that initial screening the group raised new issues and so their claims will be further examined now," a DIMIA spokesman said.

Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said he was concerned the children were in detention despite a government promise that such an arrangement would be a last resort. "We want to know exactly what the cost has been to unnecessarily fly these people over to Christmas Island and why, seeing that they managed to arrive within the accepted migration zone and should be processed here," he said.

DIMIA said the cost of housing the group in the reactivated Christmas Island facility was not yet known, and that such transfers were standard practice. DIMIA said the children would be in the facility on a short-term basis.

"Once initial processing is complete — a week or two weeks probably — it is planned that the family of four who are within that group of seven ... will live in the Christmas Island community under residents determination arrangements, while the three single men will be accommodated in the centre there," the DIMIA spokesman said.

"Following consultations with their lawyer, they will be interviewed by an experienced protection visa case manager assisted by a qualified interpreter to establish whether they are in need of protection."

In a May 2004 report, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) found that children in Australian immigration detention centres have suffered numerous and repeated breaches of their human rights. The report stated that the long-term impact of Australia's immigration detention system meant that these children "will carry the scars of their detention experience throughout their lives."

The report said, "Despite ten years of a mandatory detention regime, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs' own administrative measures and instructions virtually ignored the special needs of children. There was also little regard paid to obligations arising from the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

First "boat people" in 2 years

Vietnamese asylum seekers at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre 2004

The West Timorese group are the first asylum seekers apprehended in Australian waters since a group of Vietnamese people arrived off Broome, on Western Australia's west coast more than two years ago.

The Christmas Island detention centre also was re-opened for the Vietnamese asylum seekers — who are now living in the Australian community under refugee protection status. The 54 Vietnamese people were detained for over two years were fleeing political persecution. The federal government granted temporary protection visas (TPVs) to the Vietnamese detainees in July this year.

In July, West Australian refugee advocate Kaye Bernard, slammed the two-year remote detention as an expensive, unfortunate mess. "It is clear now that this whole sorry mess of two years of unnecessary detention for the Vietnamese kids and their families, costing in excess of $50 million, leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many Australians," she said. "This decision shows that the processing of these people by DIMIA was 100 per cent wrong and requires examination under the scrutiny of a royal commission."

New detention facility

The Christmas Island detention centre is part of the Australian government's Pacific Solution. The federal government is spending over AU$200 million to build a new 800 bed detention centre on the remote island.

Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle called on Amanda Vanstone the Immigration Minister in April 2005, to explain the government's plans for Christmas Island detention centre following reports that all Australia's immigration detainees will be held on the island. There are plans to shift all detainees to the island, according to the Shire President of Christmas Island, who says that all future unauthorised boat arrivals will be detained there.

"The government should be closing detention centres, not building new ones," Senator Nettle said. "Christmas Island's new detention centre serves no purpose beyond furthering the Coalition's political ends at a cost of over $300 million dollars to the public. If there are no plans to change the role of Christmas Island's detention centre why is the government spending $300 million on an upgrade? "