Advertisement

Once the most despised strip of land in Australia, uncertain future awaits Christmas Island

Christmas Islanders are unsure what will become of the immigration detention centre that has been emptied of detainees as a new contract is negotiated.

 

Nov 24, 2023, updated Nov 24, 2023
Signage is seen at the entrance of the Christmas Island Australian Immigration Detention Centre in Christmas Island, Saturday, November 4, 2023. The Christmas Island detention centre has been empty since mid 2023, with all remaining detainees brought to the Australian mainland, under the Albanese Government. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING

Signage is seen at the entrance of the Christmas Island Australian Immigration Detention Centre in Christmas Island, Saturday, November 4, 2023. The Christmas Island detention centre has been empty since mid 2023, with all remaining detainees brought to the Australian mainland, under the Albanese Government. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING

The facility has been in contingency mode since late September requiring a small staff, half of them locals, who can prepare the centre to receive detainees within 72 hours notice.

“We just continue looking after the facility as normal,” a local officer, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions, told AAP on Christmas Island.

“My experience tells me that this place is not going to be open to boat people but for 501s mostly.”

Under section 501 of the Migration Act, a non-citizen’s visa may be refused or cancelled if they do not pass the character test, most commonly due to a criminal record.

The officer said about 15 staff kept the centre running, with tasks ranging from gardening to cleaning and electrical repairs.

“I do reports every day still and handover … but it’s all bulls***,” he said.

But he insisted the “bad reputation” of the detention centre was unwarranted.

He was supportive of the centre, which has been in operation for two decades, remaining open with another contract being negotiated.

In late 2019, private security giant Serco announced a four-year extension with the Morrison government to provide services to the onshore immigration detention network in Australian states and territories, including Christmas Island.

Budget estimates from 2020 showed it cost more than $55 million to keep the lights on at North West Point, the main detention facility of the sprawling complex, which includes accommodation for detained families.

The whole complex can house over 1500 people.

Serco declined to comment when asked about the status of the empty centre and how much it cost to keep it running without detainees.

“The government doesn’t talk to us locals, they talk to the big business people about their plans for the centre, they’re not giving us a chance or an idea about what kind of future we want,” the detention centre officer said.

“I’ve been working there for years under Liberals and Labor, if it shuts down it’s bad for me and the other locals who work there.”

Lack of consultation from authorities was also concerning for Mohamed Othman Dardak, a local community elder who at one time worked for the Australian Border Force processing asylum seekers as part of his duties.

“It was so hard processing them (asylum seekers) and hearing what happened out there on the ocean and all their suffering, it was so heartbreaking,” he said.

“You want to try and do something to help but it’s really up to the government.”

He said decisions about the island’s future were made without the serious input of community leaders.

“Whatever they want to buy, they just do it, just like when they built the centre,” he said.

“But when you ask for something you don’t get it, like upgrades, they say they don’t have the budget.”

He was critical of the island being used an “election stunt” tapping into fears about immigration.

“I’m always uneasy with their (government’s) promises. There’s always as an excuse. They always say we’ll look into that, and then they go back and nothing happens.”

Another officer at the detention centre, who also did not want be named, said locals hear of deportations happening from time to time.

He said the Australian Border Force had ready-made boats on the coastline to deport asylum seekers who breached the territory.

“Boats come often and Hercules planes will be waiting for them at the airport to deport them,” he added.

AAP contacted Australian Border Force and the Department of Home Affairs for comment.

Linda Briskman, a Western Sydney University social work professor who has conducted research on the island, said its status as an external territory coloured how policies were imposed by the federal government.

“The way these labels are thrown around of what’s onshore or what’s offshore (immigration detention) are pretty slippery,” she said.

“It’s how the government wants to denote it rather than the reality where Christmas Island is something in between.

“It has always just been seen as being on the periphery by governments. It’s a long way from the mainland so it’s a bit out of sight, out of mind.”

Professor Briskman described the empty centre remaining open without a comprehensive plan for its future as an “incredible policy failure” by successive governments.

Christmas Island Shire Council president Gordon Thompson said the pausing of a strategic assessment in June by the federal government showed that Canberra was not serious about the island’s future.

“We are not an entertainment park, we don’t want a rollercoaster of the up and down of the detention centre either opening or closing,” he said.

“That’s not sustainable development for Christmas Island. It’s there, it’s expensive to run, it does employ some of our people … but we have to have a transition to a more sustainable economic infrastructure.”

This AAP article was made possible with the support of the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.

Local News Matters
Advertisement

We strive to deliver the best local independent coverage of the issues that matter to Queenslanders.

Copyright © 2024 InQueensland.
All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy