'Guantanamo'-style detention facility under construction on Australian Island

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Monday, November 28, 2005

The Australian Government is currently building a "Guantanamo-style detention facility" - a $210 million, 800-bed Immigration Reception and Processing Centre - on Christmas Island, 1400km off Australia's northwest coast. The project has residents concerned about the prospect of having imprisoned detainees and possible terrorism suspects as neighbours.

Christmas Islanders fear the remote detention facility will be Australia's very own "Guantanamo Bay."

XmasIslandLocation.jpg

The island's Shire President, Gordon Thompson, says residents are also worried about the effects the controversial detention centre development will have on the island's tourism industry. "We're not building tourism based on a prison tour," he said, also voicing fears that residents would be barred from areas on the northwest point of the island. He said locals were confused and did not know if the centre would just be used for refugees or as a Guantanamo-style prison. Another resident complained that access to popular fishing and snorkelling spots on the island would be limited.

Department of Immigration (DIMIA) said that when construction of the Christmas Island facility was finished, a review was likely to be taken to close some mainland detention centres such as Baxter in South Australia. "Its (Christmas Island) only use is as an immigration reception and processing centre," said a DIMIA spokesperson.

Mr Thompson, who is opposed to the imprisonment of refugees, said the centre was being built on the island in an effort to avoid public scrutiny from mainland Australians. "It's a long way from the mainland where the lawyers and trouble-makers are," he said. "We'll be kept away from it."

A resident of eight years, two as shire president, Mr Thompson said he did not trust the federal Government because it ignored the concerns of the 1500-strong community. "There's a sense the Commonwealth will do what it wants," he said. "You've got to be a little suspicious of a government that lets its own people be held in Guantanamo Bay, like David Hicks. People here have that feeling that when something big is being built away from the media - it's not fishy, it's smelly."

Mr Thomson said the Shire council were not notified when the current Christmas Island detention centre reopened last week to detain seven West Timorese asylum seekers.

Azmi Yon, president of the island's Malay association, has lived for 37 years on the island and wants the federal Government to leave it alone. He said locals were confused and did not know if the new centre would just be used for refugees or as a Guantanamo-style prison. "We need something from them in black and white to say what it is," he said. "Tell us something, don't keep us in the dark."

Mr Yon said the island was home to a harmonious group of Chinese, Malays and Europeans who respected each other's cultures. "Why disturb an isolated and unique environment when you can (build the centre) somewhere else?" he said.

Mothballed Detention Centre Reopened

The Australian Government's current Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre

A group of seven asylum seekers were transported by DIMIA to Christmas Island last week. One detainee, his wife and infant children have been allowed to live in the community under new detainment laws. However, three other asylum seekers remain the sole inhabitants of the current Christmas Island detention centre - reopened for the seven from Indonesian West Timor on November 17.

Refugee advocates, Democrats and Greens senators said the recent West Timorese asylum seekers had been "shunted" to the remote facility at a massive cost, raising more doubts about the Howard Government's promise not to detain children.

Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett, who visited a previous group of 52 Vietnamese asylum seekers in December last year, said he was especially alarmed to learn that children were still being detained despite the Government's promise that children would only be detained as a last resort.

"We want to know exactly what the cost has been to unnecessarily fly these people over to Christmas Island and why, seeing that they managed to arrive within the accepted migration zone and should be processed here," Senator Bartlett said. "The only possible reason this family has been transferred to such a remote location is the very deliberate intention of the Government to deny these people proper processing of their claims and to prevent them from accessing adequate legal and other support. It is also assists the Government to keep the family away from media attention or public scrutiny."

Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle says the Government should suspend the construction of the Christmas Island detention centre and review the necessity of the facility. "At a time when the Government claims to be reforming its immigration detention system, it is increasing its capacity to lock people up," Senator Nettle said. "After the recent scandals and abuses, the public want alternatives to detention, but the Government insists on building more empty prisons."

According to Immigration Department figures provided at the November 2005 Senate Estimates:

* The current immigration detention centres - Baxter, Villawood, Maribyrnong, Perth, Port Augusta and the existing Christmas Island facility, already have a capacity to hold 1,688 people and they have contingency places for 667 more people, bringing the total capacity to 2,355.

*Port Hedland has a capacity to hold 820 people and is costing $3 million a year to be ready to reopen.

*The infamous Woomera Detention Centre holds 800 and costs $2.6 million to keep mothballed.

Senator Nettle said: "Australia's total immigration detention capacity is already 3,975 people. The locals on Christmas Island are opposed to this facility, yet the Government is wasting $210 million on another empty prison. Is the government planning to increase the number of people in detention and deport people from the mainland to Christmas Island?"

Environmental Concerns

There has also been environmental concerns about the development. The detention centre site is adjacent to prime "Abbotts booby" habitat, in the north-west corner of the island, and is surrounded by the Christmas Island National Park.

Endangered Abbott's Boobies nest in tall rainforest trees immediately to the north, south and south-east of the site, and their proximity puts the species at the mercy of turbulence generated by the passage of wind across the clearing.

The National Park encloses the entire range of at least 35 endemic species, more than any other Australian protected area. It is part of the network of habitats of migratory species that Australia must protect under international agreements such as the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA) and the China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (CAMBA).

The Wilderness Society have said, "There are several serious environmental concerns with the selection of this site, not least of which was the selection process itself, the Howard government's self-exemption from environmental scrutiny normally required under the EPBC Act, and its commitment to best practice environmental measures during construction of the detention centre."

Research has shown that Abbott's Boobies nesting within 300 m of clearings experience significantly lower breeding success than birds nesting further away. At last count, 36% of breeding sites across the island were located within this 300 m danger zone.

The centre, under construction since January this year, is not due to be operational until late 2006.


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