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Detention on Christmas Island

10 March 2009, 01:15PM

The history of Christmas Island

In 2001, as part of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, 4000 islands were excised from Australia’s migration zone. This policy was directed at discouraging ‘boat people’ and allowing the Australian government to circumvent its international obligations to those claiming asylum whilst on Australian soil. As part of the Pacific Solution, asylum seekers who arrived by boat were sent to either the excised Christmas Island, or the island nation of Nauru.

In 2007, the Department of Immigration finished construction of an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre on Christmas Island. The centre, which contains approximately 800 beds, cost over $400 million to build and at least $30 million a year to run.

Christmas Island today

Although the current government has taken steps towards changing this detention policy, most notable by closing the detention centre on Nauru in February 2008, the 4000 islands remain excised and the government has reaffirmed its commitment to using the facilities on Christmas Island to process asylum claims.

In August 2008, Amnesty International Australia's National Director, Claire Mallinson, along with representatives from UNHCR, HREOC and the Ombudsman's office, visited Christmas Island to inspect the finished detention centre and asses the facilities for detaining and processing unauthorised arrivals.

Following this visit, a joint letter to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, was signed by Amnesty International and nine other organisations expressing concern about "the high security, prison-like character” of the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. In the letter, the organisations point out that Christmas Island is “an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum".

It is unclear why the government continues to use the facilities on Christmas Island when there are a range of alternatives on the mainland that provide a much more appropriate environment to accommodate refugee applicants - particularly for children.

Christmas Island detainees are denied their rights

Amnesty International Australia believes that asylum seekers should not be punished for their mode of arrival. Holding people who arrive by sea on Christmas Island is clearly a punitive measure, not only because of the unwelcoming environment, but also due to the distance from mainland Australia. The remote location of Christmas Island - 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth - restricts detainees from accessing the same range of legal and health services available to detainees on mainland Australia. Since many of the people held on Christmas Island are survivors of torture and trauma, it is unacceptable that they do not have access to a full range of medical and counselling services.

Moreover, asylum seekers lodging applications from Christmas Island do not have the same rights when applying for refugee status as those on mainland Australia.

For example, on Christmas Island there is no time limit for the processing of refugee claims unlike on the mainland where processing must take place within 90 days of application. Amnesty International Australia believes that all asylum seekers claiming protection should have the same rights, regardless of whether they arrived by plane or boat.

The continuing use of Christmas Island as an offshore detention centre is not consistent with the Australian government’s stated policy of treating all asylum seekers humanely and with dignity. Amnesty International is calling on the current government to reverse the excision of the 4000 islands and close the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre.

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