Australian politics, society & culture

The Indian Ocean Solution

Christmas Island

David Marr

Long read8900 words
 

In a tin shed on Phosphate Hill, a brisk woman from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship sits facing a slight kid of 17. Though Ali Jaffari knows something of what is coming, he is battling nerves. His face is grey. One leg is trembling. His father, Sharif, sits quietly beside him, his head bowed. An air-conditioner thunders in the background. Both men keep an eye on the envelopes the DIAC officer has on the table: brown envelopes that hold the answer to the rest of their lives.

Cover: September 2009
September 2009
The ANAM Piano Festival
Anna Goldsworthy
Benjamin Law
Drusilla Modjeska
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
Christmas Island
David Marr
James Bradley
Cate Kennedy

The Jaffaris are Hazaras from Afghanistan, a people long persecuted as Shia Muslims in a country overwhelmingly Sunni. Sharif was still a boy when he fled the country to grow up in the large Hazara community in Iran. At some point, he moved to Pakistan and raised a family in Quetta. But as inter-faith violence intensified in Pakistan over the last year, the city became dangerous. Sharif talks of more than 60 Hazaras murdered in the city. The Jaffaris narrowly escaped death. “Two persons came by motorcycle. They stopped. They fired on us and they escaped.” It was time to leave. “There were rumours Australia accepted refugees and it’s a safe and secure country. So therefore we decided to come to Australia. That was our plan.”

Their arrival on Christmas Island in early May, along with another 185 refugees collected by HMAS Tobruk, provoked fresh denunciations by the Opposition of Labor’s ‘soft’ response to boat people. “There cannot be any serious argument about it now,” said Malcolm Turnbull. “It has failed to stop the dreadful business of people smuggling.” Hate was back in the air. The press noted the biggest spike in “unauthorised boat arrivals” since the heyday of the Pacific Solution in 2001. The island was said to be reaching bursting point. As always, Christmas Islanders gathered to watch the refugees brought ashore. It’s a spectacle that predates the Tampa affair by a decade. But things have changed: the islanders were no longer held back by police barricades, and there were no guards in riot gear on the barges.

Flying Fish Cove lies under cliffs covered by dark forests. Jurassic birds wheel overhead. The dusty hulk of the phosphate loader waits for ships. Along the shore are barracks, warehouses and a little mosque. This was not where the Jaffaris expected to find themselves. That all boat people heading for Australia are now held on Christmas Island came as a complete surprise. “No one told us.” They hadn’t heard of attempts by Labor and Coalition governments over nearly two decades to deter people like them from coming here by boat. The messages had fallen on deaf ears. The Jaffaris paid a smuggler to bring them to this country because, where they come from, Australia has a vague reputation for decency.

As Ali was only 17, father and son were not taken to the high-security immigration detention centre at North West Point but to the old Construction Camp on Phosphate Hill above the town. The immigration minister, Chris Evans, says Labor converted the facilities here to give children and families a “community environment”. It’s a grim fib. A high fence was torn down, but what’s left is a cluster of tin boxes and concrete walkways surrounded by gravel. Workers building roads in the bush sleep in dongas like these and are well paid for their discomfort. But on Phosphate Hill families sit behind closed doors day after day with air-conditioners working away. There is little privacy. Heavy rain turns the camp into a mosquito-ridden swamp. Although the guards have gone from the gates, no one is free to leave without an escort. “It’s not a community,” said an islander who knows the place intimately. “It’s a shithole.”

Under John Howard, boat people were held in detention for years as a harsh warning to those who might follow in their wake. Labor has dramatically sped things up. The Jaffaris have waited only two months and twelve days for this encounter in the rec room with the woman from DIAC.

Her news is all good and delivered swiftly: “The paperwork has gone very quickly and I’m pleased to let you know that the minister has granted you a protection visa.” Ali sags a little and thanks her quietly. The father nods. In real life, victories aren’t marked by shouts and high fives, but relief that mimics exhaustion. She slips documents from the envelopes for them to sign. Ali asks that word be sent to a friend he made on the boat who is being held at North West Point. Ali wants to say goodbye. “I only know his name as Said.” Promises are made. (And kept.) There follows a last, bizarre interrogation. It’s so pointless it’s almost insulting, yet it’s proof the Jaffaris have now achieved the privileged status of ordinary travellers.

“Are you,” asks the woman from DIAC, “carrying goods that may be prohibited or subject to restriction such as medicines, steroids, firearms, weapons of any kind?” Ali and his father confer. “No, we don’t have any.” Nor do they have $10,000 or its equivalent in foreign currency. Nor any dried, fresh, preserved, cooked or uncooked food. The translator labours away and the woman from DIAC crosses each box in their entry cards. Tomorrow they will be driven to one of the most fickle airports in the world, where a plane will be waiting to take them 2600 kilometres to Perth. The scene is not quite finished. The air-conditioner is turned off and in the silence that fills the shed, Ali thanks those who have looked after them on the island. “We can’t consider them as human beings,” he says, “but better than human beings, like angels. We are very pleased being treated well and feeling safe and secure here. It can’t be described by words.”

 

Latitude and Longitude

Christmas Island is not a sunny atoll but a gloomy mountain sticking out of the Indian Ocean. It appears from the air black, cloud-smothered, defended by cliffs and ringed by surf. It’s tiny and a long way away. The sea is everywhere. It sets the moods of the place, brings the cloud and nights of thundering rain. It’s a tough stretch of ocean ending in the poor harbour of Flying Fish Cove. A navy boat has been hovering off the coast for days waiting to intercept little boats making their way down from Indonesia. It’s an island for waiting: waiting for something to come along, waiting for the supply ship, waiting for friends to visit, waiting for the weather to clear, waiting to get away.

Seven hundred detainees, housed in town, up in the Construction Camp and out in the forest detention centre, are waiting for news of hearings and applications and visas. Driving around trying to make sense of this baffling place on my first afternoon, I find the oval on Phosphate Hill just as it is getting dark. Gnarled frangipanis guard the gates. Lichen grows on the goal posts. Eighteen young men are playing soccer, the jungle behind them a hazy shadow in the mist. They are waiting, killing time in their own way. Clouds sweep across the field and the men disappear, lost except for their shouting.

This rock was given to Australia in the great dispersal of the Empire 50 years ago. Jakarta is the nearest big city. Buddhism is the main religion. Most of the island is locked away in a national park. The tiny population is 60% Chinese, 25% Malay and the rest European. They live in little suburbs scattered over the cliffs above Flying Fish Cove: below Drumsite come Poon Saan (“half way”) and Silver City, with the offices and big houses of the Settlement running along the waterline. All told, the permanent population is less than 1500. Christmas Island is so tiny it’s not so much a territory as a parish of Australia.

What to do with the place has intrigued Canberra for decades. One inquiry is barely finished before the next begins. Reports pile up while life goes on. Big visions disappear in the tropic heat. A casino used by Tommy Suharto and his mates to wash their loot collapsed a decade ago. The satellite launching pad never got anywhere. Phosphate mining has kept the place in work since the 1890s but perhaps for not much longer. For years the mine has been threatening to close down in four or five years’ time. It wants another 256 hectares of forest to strip and mine. Peter Garrett’s decision will shape the economic fate of the island. Meanwhile, the place has been handed another future: as a prison for refugees.

At the Australian National University in July last year, Chris Evans laid out Labor’s new regime for handling boat people. Much of the tough Howard architecture would remain: excision, military interception and mandatory detention. But now detention would be brief: only as long as it took to carry out health, identity and security checks. After that, asylum seekers would be released into the community while waiting to see if Australia would take them as refugees. The process would take months instead of years. But it was to happen a very long way away: “Those unauthorised arrivals,” said Evans, “will be processed on Christmas Island.”

So much has changed but this remains the same: we are deciding the manner in which boat people come to this country. But why via this distant spot is one of the puzzles of our time. Everywhere on Christmas Island you hear of changes for the better since Labor came to office. That a great shift has happened is undeniable. Despite a core of boat people haters among DIAC employees, relations between detainers and detained have been transformed. Fine professional services are on hand. Processing so far away from Australia has many risks – particularly for children and damaged souls disembarking from the boats – but Canberra appears willing to throw money and expertise at minimising those problems. Money is no object. The result is a logistical miracle. But to be doing this out here is utterly bizarre. We’re still caught in the toils of border protection politics.

What is the audience for this operation? Evans concedes everything done here could be done on the mainland: “It was in the past.” It would be cheaper: “There’s no doubt that the cost of supplying labour and materials to Christmas Island makes it more expensive than such an operation on the mainland.” And he makes no big claims that processing on the island deters people smuggling: “I think it offers a message about excision and a strong commitment to ensuring people who seek to come to Australia arrive lawfully.” So who is that message for? Isn’t this operation really about reassuring us back home that only the chosen will reach Australia? That the boats are under control? That these people are being held, checked and sorted at a safe distance before they’re let loose on the mainland? “That’s not part of our rationale,” replies the minister. “But I think there probably is something in that.”

Evans treads gently. Rudd laid down Labor’s policy on boat people early in his time as leader of the Opposition. Nauru would be closed, but all processing of boat people would continue way offshore. “If people are on the high seas and then indicate that they are going to seek asylum in Australia … then they should be taken to Christmas Island for processing,” said Rudd. “That’s our policy.” Howard had held some boat people on the island, but Rudd would use the island as a prison for them all. Evans’ number-one reason for the enormous effort that’s since been put into this operation is unambiguous: “It was an election commitment.”

Rudd hovers on the edge of the issue. He lashes people smugglers as “the vilest form of human life” but offers little direct support when his minister comes under fire from the Opposition for being soft on asylum seekers. Within Labor, there are fears of how Rudd might respond if the boats returned in the numbers that tempted Howard to stop the Tampa in 2001. There’s a sense that anything then might be on the table. Even the most distasteful tactic of all – one particularly loathed by the navy – has not been ruled out by Rudd. Asked by the Australian’s Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan a few days before the 2007 election how a Rudd government would deal with seaworthy refugee boats heading for Australia, the man about to be prime minister replied: “You would turn them back.”

 

Howard’s Prison

The weather on the island is brutal. It wipes inscriptions from graves. Television sets last a couple of years. Duco warps and shreds like skin with strange diseases. Buildings rot. All that’s left of the old CI Club, one of the great institutions of the island, is falling apart in the trees behind Flying Fish Cove. Here in March 2002, the Minister for Territories, Wilson Tuckey, called a meeting that’s seen as a turning point by the islanders. He told them: “You’re going to get a new detention centre and I’m not here to argue.”

Canberra had a problem. Stopping the Tampa six months earlier and warehousing boat people in the Pacific Solution had won Howard a mighty election victory, but the camps on Nauru and Manus Island were reaching capacity. If, as Howard had promised the Australian people, no boat person was ever to set foot on the mainland, another big holding camp was needed offshore. Tuckey announced a plan to spend $220 million building a 1200-bed camp very rapidly on an old phosphate-mining lease out in the forest. Nominated as a “project of national importance”, it was to be exempted from both environmental controls and scrutiny by the Public Works Committee.

Prison islands have a certain terrible fascination, particularly in the tropics, as places from which escape is impossible. Sharks and drowning are essential parts of the imagery. Howard’s camp on Christmas Island was to be part Alcatraz and part Ellis Island: a place of incarceration far from public scrutiny where inmates would be processed for a possible new life in some distant country, almost certainly not Australia. Work began quickly and $60 million had been spent by early 2003 when Canberra called a halt. The project was looking too big and too flimsy.

The boats had stopped. What Howard had done was dirty and dangerous but it worked. Preventing boats from sailing in the first place, or forcing them back to Indonesia, had killed the trade. So the new island prison didn’t have to be so big. But it did need to be more secure. The original idea had been to build another Baxter but in the last days of the year, frustrated detainees at that South Australian detention centre set the place alight. Copycat riots and fires followed at Port Hedland in Western Australia, Woomera in South Australia and Villawood in Sydney. “Touted when it opened three months ago as a state-of-the-art and ‘more humane’ centre for illegal immigrants, Baxter Detention Centre yesterday resembled the aftermath of a battleground,” wrote Catherine Hockley and Daniel Clarke in the Advertiser on 30 December. “One entire stretch of units in the compound was little more than a crumpled mess of twisted metal upon a concrete walkway.”

At this point, Howard might have reassessed the policy of deliberate long detention that had incubated the riots. Instead it was decided that security at North West Point would be increased dramatically. The new plan would involve an escape-proof and riot-proof prison for 400 people or 800 in emergencies. The project would involve building new roads, a new port and a big recreation hall back at Phosphate Hill. As usual, when it came to saving Australia from boat people, money was no object. When Baulderstone Hornibrook won the tender and took a closer look at the plans, the budget rose swiftly from $276 million to $336 million and kept rising for another three years. Canberra was discovering all over again that the high symbolic value of Christmas Island comes at a mighty cost. Everything out there – except the tax-free booze, cigarettes and second-hand luxury cars from Singapore – is grossly expensive.

Canberra pressed ahead despite a cultural shift in the immigration department provoked by the discovery in February 2005 that a schizophrenic woman, Cornelia Rau, had been imprisoned in Baxter. The report into the scandal by Mick Palmer, the former Federal Police Commissioner, led to apologies, compensation and change. But it does not appear to have provoked much fresh thought about the building at North West Point. In February 2007, the deputy secretary of the immigration department, Bob Correll, admitted at a Senate estimates hearing: “The original design is not quite up with the current thinking in detention reform.” Andrew Bartlett asked: “Do you mean it is more high security than you feel is appropriate these days?” The bureaucrat answered: “There are aspects of the use of management unit practices that might not necessarily be appropriate today.” And yet it went ahead.

Ornithologists were concerned about the fate of one of the world’s rarest birds: Abbott’s booby,Papasula abbotti. New Scientist magazine feared the bird, already endangered by mining, might be driven to the edge of extinction by the prison being built so close to its habitat. Later, Malcolm Turnbull as environment minister would try to prevent the mine clearing any more forest, but the bird’s fate was not allowed to stand in the way of the prison.

The site was a nightmare. There were limestone pinnacles and “covered caves” that threatened the project with collapse. And then there was the weather. Rick Scott-Murphy of the Department of Finance and Administration told a Senate estimates hearing: “In the period since we have been constructing it we have suffered a near pass with a cyclone, we have had a tsunami and we have had a 6.4 Richter-scale seismic event.” The minister for human services, Ian Campbell, piped up: “Building the runway in Antarctica was a lot easier than this, seriously. And cheaper.” The completion date kept being pushed back. This out-of-date, over-engineered, hugely expensive building – perhaps the building of the Howard era – was still not finished when the Howard government went to its grave.

 

English as a Second Language

“Basically, my kids have no fathers,” says Jennie Collins, a freckle-faced teacher of fierce determination and indeterminate years. A tattoo on one ankle suggests Miss Jennie has seen a bit of life. Today she’s teaching 18 Hazara boys polite English. They are slight kids dressed in the school uniform of the island: black shorts, T-shirts and runners. A few may be in their early twenties but most are about 17, the age at which the Taliban begins to take a predatory interest in them, the age when they flee. “Whole villages have clubbed together to get these boys out. Some have mothers and siblings, maybe in camps in Pakistan, but they don’t have fathers.”

She asks each boy in turn what he would like to be if, inshallah, he reaches Australia. It seems we have heading our way three would-be mechanics, two doctors, a poultry farmer, four tailors – already qualified – an engineer, a teacher, an artist, a cook, a software programmer, a social worker and “the top richest man in the world”. One kid says he wants to join the navy. “Who remembers the navy rescuing them from their boats?” asks Miss Jennie. “Are they good people?” The boys roar, “Yes!”

They came in five boats. One, with 60 people aboard, was ten days at sea. Another, with 72 aboard, was at sea for eight days and leaked all the way. “There was a hole in the bottom. They don’t have a water pump to take the water out. They were doing it with a bucket and our hands.” They were all seeing the sea for the first time. None could swim. All seem to have travelled via Kuala Lumpur airport, the refugee gateway to Australia. They came the rest of the way by boat. “It is really, really unbelievable that we are alive,” says one older detainee, AR. “Unfortunately we lost our way. There is only that much food not to die. That much. There was that much water not to die. The ship was not working. Big waves. The ship was not good. Blue sky and blue water. You can see nothing. It is just like to see a death from your eyes. A big sea. Ocean.” Another of the kids adds: “On the way we saw sharks, whales, dolphins, everything.”

Now Miss Jennie is teaching them to say sorry. Out of the hubbub as they practise on each other come “no probs” and “no worries, mate”. Thank God they appear not to master “I’ll take a raincheck”. When do you apologise, she asks each in turn. “When you are late, miss,” one replies. Another says: “When you break someone’s heart.”

 

Burn Out

Gordon Thomson is a big, pink man from Queensland whose card has two faces. One says he’s general secretary of the union and the other, president of the shire. “This is the side that matters,” he says, handing it over union side up. Swallows dart round us as we sit in a Poon Saan café run by a guy who greets us in loud Malay. “We’re in Asia,” remarks Thomson, smiling, and the coffee sadly proves his point. Thomson is the successor to Gordon Bennett, the man revered for leading the union’s long war with the British Phosphate Commission that ended in the 1980s with decent wages being paid to the indentured labourers – essentially coolies – brought from China, Malaysia and Singapore to work the mine. “BPC” is still slang for overbearing behaviour on the island, says Thomson. “History weighs on this place, absolutely. Abso-fucken-lutely.”

The history of the boats is quickly told. The first asylum seekers turned up in 1992. For nearly a decade, these occasional visitors were greeted by the islanders with hot food and clean clothes before being whisked away to detention on the mainland. The numbers escalated. The government stopped the Tampa and began the Pacific Solution. Thomson helped bring the European, Chinese and Malay communities together in radical opposition to Canberra’s blockade. “We were very upset and angry and had to have a community position.” For a few weeks the islanders were feted by the press of the world. Though that image of the island still persists, it was always rose-coloured. Thomson says the island wasn’t then – and isn’t now – of one mind. There were always Howard supporters. “I was attacked by several people in the European community. One was an ex-copper. ‘You don’t speak for me,’ he said. ‘They should torpedo those boats.’” The illusory unity of the island splintered further as Canberra began, for the first time, to detain asylum seekers in a temporary camp behind high wire on Phosphate Hill.

Canberra could send all boat people intercepted near the 4000 or so reefs and islands “excised” from the nation’s “migration zone” straight into the Pacific Solution. But it could not fiddle its legal obligations to those who slipped through the net of air and sea surveillance to reach the mainland. These people had to be dealt with on Australian soil by Australian tribunals and courts. So in July 2003, when a fishing boat called the Hao Kiet almost sailed into Port Hedland, the 53 Vietnamese on board were taken by HMAS Canberra more than a thousand kilometres and dumped on Christmas Island, where they languished for two years.

“The Vietnamese brought us all together,” said Robyn Stephenson, a high-school teacher and a member of the Christmas Island Rural Australians for Refugees. “And then it went on for so damn long. We were buying underwear for the people in detention. Every week I was going up there and they would change the rules. Visitors could be denied entry for any reason at any time.” There was a lot of work for decent people to do at a time when even lawyers rarely got out to the island. By July 2005, when the last of the Hao Kiet Vietnamese were given their visas and flown to Perth, the island’s activists were exhausted.

Six months later, 43 West Papuans landed on a Queensland beach in an outrigger canoe flying a banner that read: “Save West Papua people souls from genocide, intimidation and terrorist from military government of Indonesia.” The next day they were flown by Hercules helicopter all the way to Christmas Island. Although they were only held there for two months, the exercise went badly wrong. They were all very black. They had little support. Some of the families held in the town had never lived in European houses. They were curious and wandered about looking in windows. The night before they were due to fly to Perth, some of the men hit the piss. Then the clouds came down for days and their plane couldn’t get away. It was an ugly time that’s still not forgotten.

Meanwhile, work was going ahead slowly on the prison out at North West Point. Locals grumbled, but what could they do? This was how Canberra always behaved: imposing grand schemes on them without consultation. Thomson told the press the place was starting to look like Guantanamo Bay. “The government has proven the point that Christmas Island and other places can be excised from the migration zone, and are exempt from other acts of parliament,” he said. “It could be a military base, it could be used to detain terrorists, it could be used for anything.”

After its election victory in 2007, Labor seemed to inherit a white elephant. No boats were coming. None were expected. North West Point, standing empty, was thought rather a joke. Then on 29 September last year, a customs vessel intercepted a boat carrying a dozen refugees near Ashmore Reef. A few days later, they were brought ashore at Flying Fish Cove and taken to the Construction Camp. The boats were back. The Pacific Solution was no more. Christmas Island was where they, and all who followed them, would be held and processed.

By this time, the old radical sympathies of the island were in retreat. As Labor emphasised engagement with the community, the community was disengaging from the detainees. As professional agencies hired by DIAC took up the strain, activists could retire quietly from the scene. They remain on deck for emergencies, but after so many years and deaths and brawls with hostile bureaucrats, they have had enough. Not many visit the detainees. “We just can’t.”

By mid-December 2008 the camp was nearly full and Chris Evans had to open North West Point for business. The staff were sent in and the first detainees – including 23 Afghans, 10 Iraqis and 2 Iranians – were bussed through the gates on 20 December last year.

 

Behind the Wire

Crabs edge across a muddy road cut through the forest. Phosphate trucks thunder by. You have to know where you’re heading out here because the prison, although it’s the biggest building on the island, isn’t marked on maps. The road swings round and there it is: sprawling like a vast factory behind high wire fences. The fences are remarkable. The first apparently stops the crabs frying on the second, which is about four metres of mesh topped by half a dozen single strands of wire, the whole thing being, as they say in the prison trade, ‘energised’. Inside that is a perimeter road equipped with microwave probes that are capable, according to plans leaked to Crikey in 2007, of detecting the slightest movement. Inside that is yet another fence – quite friendly, merely man-high – before the buildings fill the landscape to the horizon.

It cost $400 million in the end. A jail this size can be built in New South Wales for roughly a tenth of that sum. The cost doesn’t stop with the building. A senior executive of G4S, the company that until this month ran all Australia’s detention centres, told me labour costs double on Christmas Island. DIAC foots the bill, of course, and this includes daily food and accommodation allowances of $190 per worker. That’s a lot to pay before spending a cent on wages. Oxfam estimates it costs $1600 per day more to hold someone on Christmas Island than the mainland. The budget for reassuring Australians is bottomless.

A fortnight before I found myself at these gates, Graeme Innes of the Australian Human Rights Commission had been here inspecting the facilities. The commission is scathing about both the prison and the Christmas Island operation. Innes told me: “We come from the position that people should not be detained on Christmas Island. First because it is so remote and the cost of everything out there is so huge. But second because in a small community of 1000 residents there are not the resources to sustain the refugees. But this government is stuck with a $400-million resource that they’ve got to use. They are making the best of it, but it is still a prison.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees concurs. “In its present form,” the UNHCR told parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration last September, “the new immigration detention centre on Christmas Island has all the characteristics of a medium-security prison. Without substantial remodelling, UNHCR does not believe it is an appropriate facility to accommodate asylum seekers except, perhaps, for a very limited few persons whose presence in the future might pose a security threat to the local community.”

Evans won’t confirm the scuttlebutt of the island that he made no secret of loathing North West Point and wished it had never opened. He will say he finds both the look of the place and the high-security measures “unnecessary and over the top”, but he defends its use. “While it presents from the outside as a prison … it’s a modern functional detention place and there are many advantages working there in terms of being able to offer recreation to clients, medical treatment, good cooking facilities, all those things.” In a way he’s right. The electricity doesn’t fail out here. The drains work. There are beds. And where else on Christmas Island can you cook a couple of thousand meals a day? If you’re going to use Christmas Island, you’re going to end up using this place. And now that all the detention centres on the mainland except Villawood are empty or mothballed, North West Point is detention central.

It wouldn’t take much to cut the fences down, but the minister isn’t planning renovations. “One, it’s brand new, so one’s not likely to be spending a lot of money on redesigning the centre, given we’ve just invested $400 million in building it. Secondly, I looked at some possible adjustments to the place and the costs were prohibitive.” At both Phosphate Hill and North West Point, Evans is trying to implement Labor’s immigration values inside John Howard’s grim facilities. It’s a most uncomfortable mix.

Entry to the IDC took all the security checks you would expect of a serious prison. Inside the yard there was something disturbingly modish about the tropical plantings and corrugated iron. It has the feel of a deranged holiday camp. The whole place is iron, steel and glass. It won’t burn, rot or rust. On a stretch of grass worn almost to death, a 25-a-side soccer match between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan is playing itself out. Soon the game will end and both the gym and what they call the “internet café” will close. The 569 single men in the place will then trail back to their yards – where the furniture is bolted to the floor – for a headcount and the evening meal. Keeping an eye on them are 247 cameras.

The polite detainee I’m visiting won’t be helped by me discussing his case. But he’s been here for over four months, one of the hard cases beginning to queue up on the island. Hazaras and Tamils are moving through at roughly the speed promised by Labor: in and out of the system within three months. But Iraqis and Singhalese, with more fragile claims to refugee protection, are facing longer detention as their cases are decided. This man is waiting to hear how he went at an Independent Merits Review held a couple of weeks earlier. It was his second and last chance. Had he reached the mainland he might have taken his case all the way through the courts. But out here on “excised” Christmas Island his only appeal was to a “non-statutory” hearing in the training room of the Christmas Island Shire Council. Though gloomy about the outcome, he was not without hope. He is taught English for an hour each week. He can find nothing to read in Farsi. He kills time smoking and sleeping.

  

Absolutely No Accommodation

Four interpreters stand like a UN delegation at the counter of the Rockfall Café examining the menu. It’s a familiar document. These rather scholarly men have been on the island four weeks and the food is getting them down. There’s not much choice. It’s expensive. Except for the odd catch of wahoo, everything fresh is flown in. That explains the coolite boxes on nearly every trolley queued for my flight at Perth airport. The cargo manifest of the plane listed, among other things, 108 kilos of sausages. No one starves out here, but feeding the hundreds who have come to deal with the detainees is straining the island’s resources to breaking point. Distance makes everything more difficult. “Christmas Island goes against the laws of economics,” one local observed. “In the face of demand it contracts.”

The interpreters at lunch are four of 21 working in nine languages with the detainees. Vying with them for scarce beds, cars and food on the island are 19 Australian Federal Police, ten customs and five quarantine officers. The Red Cross has a team of six, mainly supporting detainees living in the town; a Newcastle outfit called Life Without Barriers has nine staff looking after unaccompanied children; and the Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma has two representatives on the island. The immigration department has 43 staff of its own, plus the teams of lawyers and migration agents it hires to represent the detainees. But the biggest employer is the private operator of the detention facilities: until last month G4S but now the Serco Group. Their workforce – employed and contracted – of about 130 includes medical staff, teachers and even a bunch of happy clappers who lead “dance, art and sport activities” behind the wire. All told, 300 support staff have been brought to Christmas Island to deal with 700 detainees, almost doubling the population.

Islanders complain about expensive food and lost peace of mind; their daughters sitting at school with Hazara boys of unknown age; the hospital stretched to the limit; the dentist overwhelmed; DIAC making it up as it goes along and the tourist industry “shattered” for want of rooms, restaurants and cars to rent. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that a ticket to Paris is cheaper than a ticket to the Settlement. Chunky Bill Tatchell, the local Tourism Development Officer, tells me selling this place to Australians has never been harder. “We’re offering a five star nature experience,” he says. “But people ask, ‘Why would I want to go to that prison island?’”

On a hot Thursday night, in a garden behind the mosque, I had dinner with Zainal Majid and a few of his friends. Zainal is a senior executive with the mine and president of the Islamic Council. I’d wondered why the council was not batting for the detainees. After all, so many of the boat people are Muslim. But here’s the wrinkle: they are Shia and the island is Sunni. Majid defends the presence of the detainees but does not see himself as their spokesman. An offer of help was made by the mosque some time ago but not repeated. The detainees are welcome to pray there, he says. “But they don’t come.”

Opposite me sat the hefty Kamar Ismail, who made a name for himself a few months ago by alerting a Perth shock-jock when the navy was seen giving bottled water to asylum seekers being brought ashore. “I got so pissed off I rang Howard Sattler,” he says. “Two and a half tonnes of water flown up here. Its cost? $26,000. OK?” Tabloid radio made hay with the bottled-water story a month or so ago. Ismail speaks for many – perhaps most – islanders when he blames DIAC for rising food prices. “An apple is roughly around two bucks, man!” Later I investigate: at the Poon Saan Supermarket, a small Fuji costs 90 cents, while at the Christmas Island Supermarket and Duty Free in The Settlement, a small Pink Lady is $1.02. But the food argument is as much about passion as price, and the feeling there should be something in this for them.

“We’re just a small island,” says Ismail. “There are more people to feed since the refugees are here. They’re having their special treatment up there – which we think is OK – but we think the government should’ve looked at providing some kind of subsidy of the freight so all the community can have that same benefit and share it. I know a lot of money’s been farmed onto the island but to us there’s nothing. We just see how they’ve been treated. You know, they’ve been looked after so well sometimes we are thinking we are sitting, maybe, on the wrong side of the fence! We should be in there!”

 

It Takes a Village

Born in the UK, of rugby build, a former secretary of the United Firefighters Union (WA) and a professional politician, Evans never expected to find himself in this portfolio. Rudd handed him Immigration and the new boy began reforming a system that had, for all its cruelties, given Australians a sense of security, of protection from the hordes to the north. He has blokey charm, works out of the spotlight, and puts a good deal of effort into obscuring the reforms he’s instituted. Evans says: “My first instruction to the department was to say, ‘walk in their shoes’.”

Money can buy a lot of things on Christmas Island. It can build what it likes. It can foot the bill to house and feed hundreds of detainees and their professional minders. But money has its limits. It can’t buy the scarcest commodity on the island: community. The centrepiece of Labor’s new policy on boat people is release into the community once identity, health and security checks have been carried out. Trying to implement that policy out here brings DIAC face-to-face with a problem deeper than John Howard’s evil hardware: there is precious little community on Christmas Island to release anyone into.

“There is a serious issue about community detention on the island because of the small number of services, the small population,” admits Evans. ”There are challenges for community detention that you don’t face in the city … we cannot operate on Christmas Island in the same way that you might operate on the mainland.”

He says DIAC is responding to the islanders’ worries by, for instance, imposing curfews. “Not that there was any particular incident, but understandably groups of young men wandering round of an evening makes people a little anxious.”

“It would hardly matter in Darwin,” I observe. “But it is a big issue in Christmas Island.”

“Yes, and in part because the island lifestyle has been one where people feel safe and everyone knows everyone.”

“But it’s not just the mood of the place,” I suggest. “You release a Hazara family into the suburbs of Darwin or Melbourne and there is a Hazara community to look after them, to pick up some of the slack and to keep them company. There’s none of that in Christmas Island.”

“We’re not short of Hazaras on Christmas Island, mate!”

“But you’re very short of Hazaras who are established in the community on Christmas Island,” I reply. “Ditto Iraqis, ditto Tamils. There’s a big Tamil community on the mainland in Australia. There’s no Tamil community on Christmas Island.”

“I concede that there are different sets of issues about community detention and releasing people into the community on Christmas Island. The upside is that, in a sense, security agencies are more relaxed about people being in the community on Christmas Island because effectively there’s nowhere to go.”

For nearly 600 single men there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait out at North West Point. There is no room in the little town for them. Labor’s promise of community detention is not for these men. The Iraqi I visited had cleared all his identity, health and security checks but was still behind the wire. Despite repeated requests, DIAC would not tell me how many detainees were in his position. Interpreters and social workers tell me there are many. If we accepted these men as refugees, they will go straight from the prison to the plane. Those we don’t will be exposed to all the familiar risks of depression and self-harm out where it’s most difficult for help to reach them.

Evans defends his claim that the Construction Camp is a “community environment” by explaining that by “living in the community” he means “not being behind barbed wire”. This “community” collection of dongas on Phosphate Hill is vigorously attacked by professionals and human rights advocates. A senior medical figure with long experience of the camps told me: “It’s as hideous as Baxter or Woomera. There are no facilities for children. They should not be housed there but taken to the mainland.” Commissioner Graeme Innes told me: “The Construction Camp is not a prison but in some respects it’s a worse facility. It’s cramped. It doesn’t have the facilities of North West Point. The separation detention facility there restricts people to two rows of huts and a boardwalk. People are held there for two weeks at a time. It is not acceptable.”

Evans admits the camp has “a range of inadequacies.  But it is a facility that we had that we could use. We’re trying to make improvements as we go and we’re trying to move people through the Construction Camp as quickly as possible.”

Evans denies DIAC is overwhelmed. “We have pressure on our processing and our capacity to meet our normal timeframes as a result of numbers. But I’ll be frank: that would be true on the mainland or on the island.” He argues that neither the geography nor the facilities will defeat his reforms. “It’s how you treat people that matters, not where you treat them. And you can treat them well in a really unfortunate and inadequate environment, but that’ll be much better than treating them badly in a five-star hotel.”

Of all the detainees on the island, only about 40 are actually living in the community. They include AR and his two young daughters, who came down from Phosphate Hill to a house in Drumsite 10 days before I met them. AR is a worried man. The other Hazaras on his boat have all left for Australia. He is waiting to hear how he went in his Merit Review. The other half of his family is in Iran. His wife, who is running out of money, rings to ask what is happening. He doesn’t know. He can’t say. Apart from his children, AR’s existence has come down to this: waiting and worrying.

But now he’s in the town he can cook. His Chinese neighbours are polite. He has experienced no rudeness. Like anyone else on the island, he feels stranded without a car. If he knew he was to be here much longer, he would invest in a bike. He has nothing to read. He can find no books in Dari. He prays early, reads the Koran and walks his children round the corner to school. They miss playing with their friends in the Construction Camp and find the house a bit lonely. That morning, he tells me, he kept walking for two hours down the road to the forest and hitched a ride on a truck back home. Later, he rang his migration agent in Sydney again and was told all the paperwork was with DIAC and there was nothing more they could tell him.

 

Deep in Our Hearts

The forest behind the graveyard is alive with the sound of big birds grunting and barking. The air smells of bird shit. Guano is still in production. I’ve come to visit Gordon Bennett’s grave, a kitsch concrete pagoda in the Chinese cemetery. To be buried here is a remarkable honour. In accordance with Taoist custom, booze is left on the headstone to refresh the union hero in the afterlife. All that is left for him this morning are five empty cans of Fosters, a half-drunk Corona and a tiny bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.

This is an island of graves. Not far off are the graves of Fatimeh and Nurjan Husseini, who drowned in the debacle of the sinking of the Sumber Lestari a couple of days before Howard took the country to the polls in 2001. The boat was sabotaged. The navy faced a mass rescue of over 100 people who could not swim. Despite heroic efforts to revive them, two died. After the burial, Fatima’s husband, Sayyed, was handcuffed and removed from the island. Attempts to grow trees by the graves have failed. Though the headstones are marble, the inscriptions are nearly obliterated. In the garden of the old Administrator’s house, the same has happened to the memorial in memory of those who drowned on the SIEV X. The 353 names are all but illegible.

These are the particularly mournful memorials of people who died a long way from home making journeys so many of us wish they’d never attempted. Underneath Australian politics is a great artesian basin of xenophobia. Our attitudes to dark people in small boats heading for our shores have softened since Tampa. But intermittent polls over the years show that between a half and a third of us want none of them allowed into this country.

“There’s no doubt that across the political divide there’s a great unease about boat arrivals,” admits Evans. “Our view is that you need strong border security. You do need to try and ensure that people arrive lawfully. We’re very committed to that. And that’s not mutually exclusive with treating people properly and humanely if they arrive in an unlawful way. These two policy objectives are supportive rather than exclusive.”

Perhaps because they know how bad the figures might be, refugee advocates were cheered by a Newspoll in April that showed support and opposition for the government’s handling of asylum seekers evenly balanced. But a closer reading of the numbers shows how fragile the situation is: a third of those polled hadn’t made up their minds. The Opposition hasn’t gained much traction bashing boat people over the last few months, but it’s far from clear how the nation might yet jump. Evans says he doesn’t pore over the polls. “I find those things too depressing.”

Labor is not contesting the nation’s old fears. No party has actually campaigned on behalf of boat people since Malcolm Fraser went on the stump in the late 1970s to try to calm the panic that broke out when the first Vietnamese boats reached Australia. Labor has instead mounted this extraordinary performance out in the Indian Ocean: doing at a distance what might be done at home in order to comfort Australians with the idea that we alone decide who comes to this country, and until they prove themselves out on this rock, these strangers won’t be let loose in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. No other country goes through such an elaborate rigmarole. The truth is Christmas Island is Australia. Refugees who make it so far have nowhere to come, in the end, but the mainland. They could come here from the start. 

I could fill pages with figures showing how exaggerated these fears are: how few refugees reach Australia by boat compared to the numbers on the move in the world; compared to the tens of thousands each year who wash up on the island of Lampedusa heading for Europe; compared to the many thousands who ask for refugee protection ‘onshore’ after flying into Australia. These figures are quoted endlessly but seem not to touch the national conviction that we are at risk of being swamped by refugees coming south by boat. As I write, the number who have been brought to Christmas Island in the year since the boats reappeared is 1057.

For 10 years, I’ve been asking people why we’re so afraid of refugees in boats. It’s one of Australia’s defining fears. On Christmas Island the press was blamed. “Boats with big groups of people will get more coverage than people who come in by air,” said Kamar Ismail. “People who come through Qantas, who cares? Just like normal people.” So was the legacy of Howard: “No one’s ever got elected stirring up hatred of people coming on planes,” said Gordon Thomson. “You know: leaky boats. There are just so many negatives about that. But I would have thought the bravery, the courage, the ability to think through a terrible, terrible difficulty to a better way of existing would be something that would be wonderful for a population to have. I don’t have that sort of courage. Do you?”

He had another question: “Have you ever come to terms with living in Australia? You’re not Aboriginal, are you? So what is your place? People of my heritage – Scottish, English, some mongrel sort of heritage that I’ve got from Northern Europe – maybe aren’t comfortable with themselves.”

Most often on the island I heard it said our fears come from ignorance of the people on the boats and the hardships they are fleeing. “Maybe people who are scared haven’t travelled and haven’t seen people and how people react,” said Zainal Majid. “We might talk a different language, but inside we’re still the same. We might walk a different path but it comes back to the same.”

I remember as a kid being taught that this country’s survival depended on putting a wall between us and the hordes to the north. How I absorbed that lesson, I don’t remember. In my mind’s eye, I see big canvas maps on a classroom wall. It was taken for granted then that everyone up there wanted to come down here. They would not be led by armies; they didn’t have much in the way of military forces back then. They would come in little boats. I’m of the generations who can see boat people as the advance party of unimaginable numbers. Let even a few arrive and, God knows, Australians could end up looking like the people of Christmas Island.

The terrace of the Lucky Ho was alive with rumours on my last night that more boats were on the way. A policeman’s wife had told her hairdresser, who told her daughter, who told the other kids at school, who told the teachers eating wahoo in special sauce at the next table, that 150 refugees would arrive in Flying Fish Cove in the morning. It proved to be rubbish, but such rumours can’t be wrong for long out here. The boats will keep coming and, until we’re willing to face our fears, we will continue to deal with them out here in a way that’s essentially theatre: an expensive, deeply satisfying, national farce.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.
More by David Marr