Paige Taylor, the Australian, 4 January 2011
CHRISTMAS Island is fast becoming the alternative place of detention for boatpeople. The number of boatpeople on the mainland now easily outnumbers those on the Indian Ocean island excised in 2002 for the purpose of processing asylum-seekers. There are 3469 boatpeople or “irregular maritime arrivals” in immigration detention on the Australian mainland compared with 2811 on Christmas Island, according to Immigration Department figures compiled on the evening of December 30.
Labor moved to overturn the Howard government practice of offshore processing in September 2009, when then immigration minister Chris Evans authorised the transfer of 10 Afghan youths from Christmas Island to the Melbourne Immigration Detention Centre. An Immigration spokesman said at the time the decision to allow the boys to travel to the mainland with their paid carers would give them access to a range of classes and recreational activities. “This move will enable the department to finalise their cases and ensure support to this particularly vulnerable group,” he said.
Within months, large numbers of asylum-seekers were being transferred to mainland detention because crowding on Christmas Island was becoming unmanageable. Initially, men were sent to high-security detention centres at Villawood, in Sydney’s western suburbs, and in Darwin. In June last year, families were sent to a refurbished miners’ camp in the West Australian town of Leonora, where the shire and local business owners welcomed the economic boost.
There are now detention centres or facilities for boatpeople in every mainland state, including at the air bases at Curtin in the far north Kimberley of Western Australia and in Scherger near Weipa in Queensland’s far north. So far, the decision has done little to ease crowding on Christmas Island, where tents — supposed to be a temporary measure — are still in use. Residents on Christmas Island have long complained of rising rents and food prices caused by crowding outside the detention centre. The influx of government workers and contractors who work on a fly-in, fly-out basis has been good for businesses but difficult for residents on relatively modest incomes.
Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson lobbied Labor for extra infrastructure to cope with the crowding. As a result, the island’s sewerage and water systems are being upgraded and extra housing is planned. Residents hope pressure will ease when the federal government moves about 1500 men from Christmas Island to an old army barracks in the West Australian wheatbelt town of Northam.