Australia opens controversial asylum centre on Christmas Island

Posted by admin on Dec 19th, 2008, Friday 19 December 2008 16.05 GMT

Australia is opening a controversial detention centre for asylum seekers on a remote Indian Ocean island nearly 1,000 miles from its mainland. The decision to use the facility on Christmas Island is an embarrassing U-turn for the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, whose own Labor party had criticised the centre’s construction while in opposition. Rudd’s centre-left government had been resisting calls to use the prison-like facility which can house up to 800 people. But a spate of new arrivals forced the rethink. Seven boats carrying 172 refugees have been intercepted off the Australian coast over the past three months.

The first would-be immigrants sent to the detention centre will be 37 men who were stopped on Tuesday around 100 miles north-east of Darwin.

Human rights groups and the Labor MPs have been damning in their criticism of the centre, a £180m facility surrounded by cliffs on the island’s remote western tip.

Michael Danby, a Labor MP who headed a parliamentary delegation to the centre earlier this year, described it as a “stalag”, an “enormous white elephant” and a “grandiose” waste of public funds.

Australia’s commissioner for human rights, Graeme Innes, who toured the facility in August, expressed his disappointment at the government’s decison.”I think that’s a very inappropriate way to treat people who, while not obeying all the rules of Australia, have come from very traumatic and difficult situation in countries overseas,” he said. Describing the centre, he told local radio: “It’s bleak, it’s forbidding, it’s a long way from the rest of the community on Christmas Island.”

The Australian Greens party said the new Christmas Island centre should never have been built as previous detention centres had a bad record of negative psychological and physical effects on asylum seekers.

“This facility, of monstrous size and cost to taxpayers, is not an appropriate way to accommodate people who have arrived in Australia seeking our assistance,” said Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young. “Offshore processing of claims entrenches an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards asylum seekers.”

Even Rudd, whose government inherited the facility from the administration of his predecessor, John Howard, had said it would not be put into use as it was not family friendly. Now the government says it will house only men.

Justifying the decision to reopen the centre, the immigration department said in a statement yesterday: “The government’s policy is to open the new facility when numbers and separation arrangements required it.”

Since coming to power just over a year ago Rudd’s government has rolled back many of its predecessor’s harsh immigration policies, ending Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, in which hundreds of asylum-seekers were intercepted at sea before reaching Australian waters and shipped to remote Pacific nations to be processed. Interned in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, the would-be immigrants were unable to apply for refugee status as they had not set foot on Australian soil, and had no recourse to the appeals system.

In August, the immigration minister, Chris Evans, said that Howard’s policy had tarnished Australia’s reputation abroad, but he denied scrapping the Pacific Solution was a softening of border policy.

The Rudd government also abolished a system of giving refugees temporary-­protection visas, a measure that opponents said left Australia open to people-smuggling rackets.

The Indonesian authorities last month seized an Iranian described as the kingpin of a people-smuggling web thought to have been behind the new influx of mainly Afghan and Iraqi refugees to Australia

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