When riots broke out at Christmas Island detention centre on 17 March, it wasn’t just protesting asylum seekers who were hit with the Australian Federal Police’s tear gas and bean-bag rounds. According to Kaye Bernard, the general secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers, hundreds of peaceful asylum seekers were also caught up in the mayhem — as were detention centre staff.
The AFP did not give security guards working for Serco — the private company that manages the maximum-security centre — any warning that they were about to storm the compound. "None of the workers knew that it was going to be bombarded by tear gas and they were caught in the compound," Bernard told New Matilda.
"Afterwards, the staff coming out were gobsmacked, they’d never seen anything like that in their lives. These are level-two security officers, undertaking very difficult work, and suddenly they are in a war zone."
Bernard says detainees who had nothing to do with the protests were also caught in the firing line. "Psychologically, these are very distressed people. This has had a very problematic effect on people’s [sense of]safety."
The fallout from the protests has been carefully controlled by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen who has released information about what’s happening on the island sparingly and usually only at the request of journalists. Here on the East Coast, there has been coverage of the community’s reaction to both the riots and the department’s handling of them, but very little about the events unfolding within the detention centre itself since the protests took place, and what conditions are like for those who remain there.
In fact, what we often refer to as the "Christmas Island detention centre" is just one of a number of different sites on the island at which asylum seekers are detained. There is the maximum-security centre at North West Point, constructed in the dying days of John Howard’s government — but there is also Construction Camp, where families and unaccompanied minors reside, and Phosphate Hill, where "low-risk" single males are held.
The North West Point compound itself was built to house just 800 people, but the centre also has what the Immigration Minister calls "surge capacity" — part of which includes two minimal security compounds known as Lilac and Aqua, which have a capacity of 600.
These compounds are a collection of demountable buildings, brought in by the Labor government to ease overcrowding, and are where most of the recent unrest occurred, according to local Michelle Dimasi, who runs Asylum Seekers Christmas Island.
The "basic" fencing at Lilac and Aqua is also the reason the Department of Immigration was unable to account for all asylum seekers for a number of days after the protests, says Dimasi. Asylum seekers in these compounds were regularly breaking through the fence and going for walks in the jungle. "Until they can secure the fencing in Lilac and Aqua compounds, they can’t do a head count," Dimasi told NM.
New Matilda can report that at around midday yesterday Christmas Island time (4pm AEST), asylum seekers detained in Aqua and Lilac were instructed over a loud speaker to pack up their belongings and move to the main compound.
Kaye Bernard heard the announcement from a hill overlooking the centre. "They were calling in English and Farsi to come in and bring your belongings. They were told that if they didn’t move, the police would come and move them. People started gathering up their belongings. I didn’t see the police come in."
Yet on ABC radio this morning the minister made no mention of the move, only saying "My advice is that all asylum seekers have all been accounted for within the North West Point centre."
Without Lilac and Aqua, the main compound will now be more crowded than before. When asked how these extra detainees were being accommodated at the centre, a spokesman for the minister told New Matilda: "The main compound and other parts of the centre have sufficient capacity to accommodate people in the short term. All our detention accommodation is designed to be flexible."
He added that "A decision will be made in due course as to the ongoing use of the [Lilac and Aqua] compounds".
What is sure is that the department is rapidly moving people off the island. In a community newsletter circulated on 19 March, the island’s administrator said 159 asylum seekers had been transferred that day. Another 143 were removed on 20 March. These groups have mostly been moved to Darwin, according to Dimasi.
Yesterday, she went to the airport to farewell a group of unaccompanied teenagers being transferred to Darwin along with 70-80 other asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Burma. The group had been given little notice of the move.
"They only found out at 8.30 this morning that they were being transferred," she says. "When I asked one of the boys was he sad or happy to be going, he said ‘I’m neither sad nor happy but I’m going to miss my friends a lot here’. As you can imagine the teenagers in detention make close contacts with other teenagers in the centre — especially those who have no family members with them."
(The department doesn’t take these relationships into account when moving people around, says Dimasi. "It’s just a numbers game: people are just moved and it’s a matter of where they can fit them. Often we don’t even know where they go; we try to encourage them to get back in contact.")
With so many asylum seekers being held on the island, these days Dimasi mostly works with the people she sees as most vulnerable "the unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, or children who have stopped going to school because they are depressed", so her work is focused mostly at the Construction Camp facility.
She says her last visit to detainees in North West Point was four weeks ago, but even then "the two Afghan men I was visiting said things were really bad; that people were going crazy".
"The main reason those protests occurred is because of conditions — it’s severely overcrowded. There were over 1800 men in a facility only built for 800," she says. "But the other reason is that there are some people out there who have been there for 18 months or close to two years. The mental health impacts of detention are well known — so that is having an effect. There is only so long than you can stay [healthy in that situation]."
"There has also been speculation that some of the ringleaders in the protest had actually agreed to be repatriated several months ago and they were still being held in detention," Dimasi told New Matilda.
When New Matilda put this claim to the minister he failed to deny it. "As the recent unrest is still the subject of ongoing internal and independent investigations, it would not be appropriate to go into detail about detainees taking part on the protests," the spokesman said.
Dimasi says the Christmas Island community’s anger over the handling of the unrest is real, and was exacerbated by the department waiting a full five days after the protests began to hold a community meeting about the situation.
"What seems to happen here [on Christmas Island]is backward consultation — it takes place after something has occurred." she says. "People are quite resentful that there was a lack of consultation to begin with, but also that they were told the situation was much calmer — right before riots broke out and buildings were set on fire. They feel like they can no longer trust the department."
And although the community has never been "happy" that there are so many asylum seekers on the island, Dimasi — who is also a researcher on community responses to asylum seekers for Swinburne University — says she has seen a marked change in people’s attitudes in recent times.
"Back in the 1990s and up to 2001, Christmas Islanders were very sympathetic to asylum seekers because they had an opportunity to interact them. Back then they were held in the local sports hall. The community could bring food, blankets. There were community events like volleyball matches [that brought asylum seekers and locals together].
"That engagement has completely diminished now. Now, people are detained out at the centre, so locals only see them for 30 minutes when they land and then they’re taken on a bus to the detention centre. If you don’t know who the people are, that’s when people become afraid."
The boat crash on December 15 last year, in which locals were directly involved in saving asylum seekers’ lives, increased community compassion, and made people more aware of "just how risky it is to seek asylum", Dimasi believes. "But that’s changed again now. It’s really sad that people have now become very negative and anti-asylum seeker."
One local who is clearly outraged about the way asylum seekers are now being treated is Kaye Bernard. "The majority of the detainees weren’t involved in this protest. Only 150 out of the 1800 people detained there were involved," she says. "My understanding is that the decision to storm the compound and fire tear gas and bullets was made in Canberra."
"These are long range decisions, but short range missiles," she says.
Speaking to Fran Kelly on ABC radio this morning, Chris Bowen denied the government was detaining asylum seekers on the far-flung island to keep them out of the mainland legal system. What he can’t deny is that keeping them there is making his difficult job just that little bit easier, as the mainland media struggle to keep up with daily events in a distant outpost.
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