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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: ‘Prison-like’ Immigration Facility Open

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Dec 30 2008 (IPS) - Refugee rights organisations have criticised the Rudd government’s decision to hold suspected asylum seekers in a controversial detention centre on an isolated Australian island in the Indian Ocean.

“The decision to open the Christmas Island detention centre, to a significant extent, flies in the face of the reforms that the current minister has developed over the last twelve months,” says the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), Paul Power.

The changes overseen by the country’s minister for immigration, Chris Evans, since the Kevin Rudd-led Australian Labor Party (ALP) came to power with victory in the November 2007 election were welcomed by organisations and individuals concerned with the treatment of people seeking asylum here.

Among the reforms to policies introduced by the previous conservative government were the scrapping of the Temporary Protection Visa system and the abandonment of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, whereby asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities outside the nation’s migration zone were sent to detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

In a speech to the RCOA – the peak advocacy body for refugees and asylum seekers – in November, Senator Evans was keen to talk-up the apparent change in values brought by the current government in regards to refugee and asylum seeker policies.

“Its is a measure of just how far we’ve come in the first year of the Rudd Labor government, of how much has been achieved in terms of returning humanity and fairness to Australia’s refugee policies and sweeping away past excesses,” said Evans.

But despite making additional changes regarded as positive by refugee advocates – including placing the onus on the government to justify a person’s continued detention following the initial mandatory health, identity and security checks – the government announced on Dec.19 that the new Northwest Point immigration detention facility on Christmas Island would be used to detain asylum seekers for the first time.

An Australian territory, Christmas Island lies 2,600km north-west of the nation’s western most city, Perth, and 500 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

The Northwest Point facility, completed earlier this year at an estimated cost of AUD 400 million (276 million US dollars), has a normal operating capacity of 400 people but can accommodate another 400 if required.

Constructed under the auspices of the John Howard-led government, the ALP have panned the facility in the past, but now say a recent influx of apprehended asylum seekers requires it to be used.

While the government maintains that this spike is due to worsening conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, the opposition claims that the policy reforms make Australia more vulnerable to people smugglers.

A group of 37 adult male passengers and crew are now being held at the centre after their boat was intercepted by border protection authorities on Dec.16. It is government policy that all “unauthorised boat arrivals” are taken to Christmas Island while the mandatory checks are undertaken.

The department of immigration says that in addition to these 37 men detained at the new facility, 135 other people – all apprehended while apparently attempting to reach the Australian mainland – from six different boats intercepted since September are also currently being held on the island.

These suspected asylum seekers – “the majority of them single adult males,” according to a departmental statement – are being accommodated across a range of facilities.

28 people are being held “in housing or community-style facilities while their asylum claims are processed,” with the rest being detained in accommodation previously used by workers involved in constructing the new detention facility or at the island’s other immigration detention centre at Phosphate Hill.

Although refugee advocates have admonished the government for maintaining offshore processing of asylum seekers – critics maintain that the ‘Pacific Solution’ has been replaced by the ‘Indian Ocean Solution’ – it is the use of the Northwest Point centre that has recently raised their ire.

“It is an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum while their applications for protection are determined,” said representatives of nine non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the RCOA, the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, and Amnesty International Australia in an open letter sent to Evans in August.

The NGOs’ letter followed their visit to the Christmas Island centre earlier in the year after having been invited there by the government.

Power, who was among the group that toured the facility, told IPS that “there is no justification for putting people in an environment like that.”

“The Christmas Island detention centre gives the impression that it was designed for dangerous people…the sense of surveillance and caging is quite overwhelming,” he says.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Graeme Innes, human rights commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission – an independent statutory body – who described the Northwest Point detention centre as “completely inappropriate for detaining asylum seekers.”

“Not only is it the most isolated facility on an extremely remote island but it looks and feels like a high-security prison,” Innes, who also visited the centre earlier in 2008, said in a statement.

Kate Gauthier, national director of refugee lobby organisation A Just Australia – also among the NGOs to have written to Evans – says that there is no need to use the new facility.

She told IPS that policy reforms made under Evans’ leadership mean that detainees held on the island should already be out in the community, thereby making way for the group of 37 men to be detained in the other available accommodation.

Among the government’s “key immigration values” is that apart from the initial mandatory detention period for all unauthorised arrivals, detention centres are “only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.”

“Clearly, there is a vast range of difference between what the minister has said is the purported new detention values and what actually goes on in a remote area with very limited independent oversight and media scrutiny and out of the gaze of the public eye,” says Gauthier.

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