I’ve just returned from a Church leader’s delegation to Christmas Island for a ground level view of how asylum seekers arriving by boat first experience Australia. The spike in boat arrivals in Australia in the past 6 months represents the tiny tip of the massive worldwide refugee crisis. Countries in other parts of the world are looking askance at what they regard as a mean-spirited Australian response to the crisis. Compared with many other countries we are simply not carrying our share of the load.
Our delegation also wanted to explore how the churches and other religious communities in Australia might join with other voluntary and not-for-profit groups and caring locals to help humanize the strange and artificial world of Christmas Island Detention Centre.
My response to what I saw and heard is mixed. The concerns consistently expressed by the Uniting Church about the very existence of an off-shore detention centre were reinforced. Such a place should not exist. Australia has a legitmate right to manage its borders but the policy of processing the arrivals’ bona fides at a remote offshore location in an environment resembling a high security prison compound is unjustifiable. Christmas Island is a four hour flight from Perth and a mere 300km from Jakarta. The Detention Centre is a compound carved out of the tropical forest with high, razor-wired fences capable of carrying 50,000 volts of electricity.
To be fair the Government is trying, with some success, to change practices within the facility to render it less like a prison and more like a transition camp. Minister Evan’s seven core values include respect for ‘clients’ (not ‘detainees’) high on the list. The shift is worthy if not yet consistently realized. Just six months ago the detention Centre housed around 600 asylum seekers. Last week the number approached 1800. This escalation of arrivals is due largely to the war in Afghanistan and the huge number of displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. The sheer logistical challenges in accommodating, feeding, clothing such a large and culturally diverse group of people cannot be underestimated.
Of most immediate concern are the 90 or so young people referred to as unaccompanied minors. These children are 18 years and below and they have arrived here on their own. Some carry deep scars of painful memories, others bear the burden of expectation of the families and communities who have pooled together precious resources to send them on a journey of hope and promise. All exist in a limbo of longing for a visa, their passport to hope, and of homesickness and loneliness that comes from being separated from loved ones with no immediate hopes of reunion. Given that Christmas Island Detention centre will be there for a while at the very least these young people and the other children with their families should as a matter of course be accommodated in a community placement on the mainland.
The asylum seekers are not criminals. Nor are they queue jumpers - where they come from there are no queues. Nor do they enjoy luxurious accommodation on Christmas Island, far from it. The facilities are adequate but rudimentary. It is not a place that I would want anyone I care for to stay. It is a liminal, betwixt and between place where fear and hope cohabit. It is a holding-pen housing people who know they cannot return (unless they are forced to by failing security checks) but who cannot dare to hope for too much from this country to whose big-heartedness they have appealed.
We heard many stories in our short stay. Those who have arrived more recently, especially those from countries whose visa applications are processed relatively quickly, are on the whole buoyant and positive. The Department of Immigration aims at an average of 90 days (it’s currently 110 days) to assess whether asylum seekers meet the international criteria for refugees – ninety-five per cent achieve this. Then there is a security checking process. For the Tamils from Sri Lanka this is taking considerably longer and some of the people we met had been in the Detention Centre for more than nine months. It was disheartening for them to see groups of people who had arrived months later receiving visas and leaving for the mainland, their own prospects uncertain. We urge that more resources be invested to expedite these checks more quickly.
Let’s not allow this humanitarian crisis to become once again a cheap political plaything. There is a legitimate place for border protection. And there is a compelling humanitarian case for ensuring that people fleeing persecution and seeking safety here be treated expeditiously and humanely.
Let's keep campaigning for closure of this facility as soon as possible, and in the meantime, for the immediate implementation of a policy that all children and family groups be housed on the mainland while their applications are being processed