Welcome To Paradox

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You don’t need to lock your door on Christmas Island. It’s that sort of place.

When I visited the island for the first time earlier this month, I found my Melbourne security consciousness was not only irrelevant, but also impossible. A friend who lives on the island doesn’t carry a house key: she simply closes the door behind her as she leaves.

The locks on my hotel room didn’t work either. My key was useful only to activate the air-conditioning. Early in my stay, I worked out leaving my hire-car keys in the ignition when I went swimming in the cove was a better idea than taking them with me. Car windows open, of course, to keep the car cool.

Compare this sleepy atmosphere to that which prevails at the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on the other side of the Island. The centre is a 20 minute drive from the town — or 30 minutes if the roads are closed for the annual red crab migration as they were during my visit. The centre is situated in a hollow and you don’t see it until the road passes over a ridge. Suddenly, there it is, spread out in front of you. The first thing that struck me was the scale: I had seen photographs before my visit, but I was nonetheless surprised at how huge the centre really is.

Viewed from above, the centre is laid out in a pattern of overlapping rooflines, surrounded by layers of tall, sturdy fences. The roofs are sloped at such an angle that they make roof-top protests — like those we have seen in other detention centres — difficult. It looks like a modern, high-tech fortress, with a large satellite dish and security cameras mounted on lampposts.

The fact that over one thousand people are detained within a maximum-security prison at the other end of their peaceful island isn’t lost on the locals of Christmas Island. There are rumblings of disquiet within the community about the centre and about recently announced plans for its expansion.

Yet the disquiet isn’t precisely about the centre itself, nor about the welfare of the detainees.

What does concern the locals are the hundreds of fly-in, fly-out workers required to staff the centre and process the applications of the asylum seeker detainees.

Currently, the centre employs about 300 staff. Only about 75 of these employees are locals; the rest come to the island on short-term contracts. In addition, the island hosts a handful of AFP workers, and regular day-releases for crew from the Navy boats patrolling the ocean for vessels carrying asylum seekers or illegal fishermen.

The plans to expand the centre to a capacity of 2000 detainees will involve increasing the workforce from 300 to 500. In a community of 1200 people, this means a significant increase in population and a considerable change of character. This itinerant population earns good wages and generally don’t have children: tough women in immigration processing, strong men in security or AFP jobs.

The extra workers on the island mean extra demand for housing. Rents have skyrocketed, and while the Department of Immigration is spending money fixing dilapidated flats to accommodate their staff, renovations are slow as building supplies need to be shipped from the mainland. The high rents affect the locals.

So too does the increased demand for food. A supply boat arrives on Christmas Island once every six weeks — if there are no accidents or weather events to hold it up. Two weeks prior to the ship’s arrival, the supermarket shelves start to look bare. The prices are high because food is limited. The heat and the journey from the mainland take their toll on the fresh produce: it is of poor quality and extremely expensive. An iceberg lettuce costs over $5, as does a bunch of asparagus. Alcohol and cigarettes, however, are tax-free and cheap.

The Shire Council is concerned about the capacity of its infrastructure to support the swell in population. Will the water, power and sewerage systems be able to cope? Public spaces, too, such as the barbecue areas and boat ramp at Flying Fish Cove, were already well used by locals. They are now shared with centre workers seeking an "island experience" on their days off.

The Islander, the local fortnightly paper, published an article by the Shire Council in November which expressed two main concerns relating to the expansion of the centre. The first is "the asylum seekers’ welfare". The second is fleshed out over three columns and involves the: "troubling and ever-present assumption of government that Christmas Island is a lump of rock that may be turned to any government purpose without notice or consent of the people who occupy the Territory."

The article summons several examples to support this contention, like this one. "Our compensation for the decision of the Howard government to build the North West Point Detention Centre was the Recreation Centre … We can’t deny the fact it is a magnificent facility that we, with our small population, could never afford to build ourselves. But we had no right to decide what was to be built or where the facility was built."

While the shire acknowledges the short-term benefits to the economy that the centre’s workers bring, it emphasises that a "stable and sustainable economy" is what the island really needs. Questions remain as to whether the detention centre will provide that stability. Will political pressure eventually mean the closure of the centre? Without a significant alternative industry, what will the Islanders do?

In the meantime, this sleepy little community that doesn’t lock its doors will continue to play a role in securing Australia’s borders by hosting our newest maximum-security detention facility.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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