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Inside the Christmas Island detention centre

Yesterday Crikey published a letter addressed to Immigration Minister Chris Evans and signed by a group of NGOs and refugee rights groups after their escorted visit to the completed $400 million Christmas Island detention facility.

Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, was one of the group of “stakeholders” who toured the newly completed Christmas Island detention facility, equipped to accommodate up to 800 people, last Wednesday.

According to Curr, a group of around 40 to 50 people spent five hours flying to the island, four hours on the ground and then five hours flying back. They were given an unprecedented level of access to the new facility and were told that, as there are currently no detainees in the facility, they were permitted to freely take photos and take mobile phones inside.

A long time campaigner for refugee rights, Curr confirmed to Crikey that there seems to be a “new openness” under Senator Evans.

I have to say I could never imagine it happening under the previous government,” Curr told Crikey.

But Curr and her fellow representatives share serious reservations about the new facility, as outlined in their letter over the weekend. They collectively continue to call for for all asylum seekers to have their applications dealt with under the procedures that apply on the mainland and maintain that “the very expensive security systems of the facility are quite unnecessary for the population who may be detained there.”

The Palmer Inquiry was lodged in May 2005,” Curr told Crikey, ”and yet the plans for the Christmas Island facility were signed off in June/July of that same year, and the Howard government kept building. There was no change to the centre incorporating the Palmer recommendations.”

During the tour Pamela took photos of the new facilities  — with the tour leader’s full permission. The tour was led by various officials from the Department of Immigration and GSL contractors.

According to Curr, even without housing any detainees, the facility is set to cost $22 million a year to run.

As you drive through the first set of heavy electric gates into the vehicle air lock, you know that you are in a high security prison with every permutation of steel grills bars and wire mesh,” Curr told Crikey. And if you do the maths, “each of the 400 beds cost the Australian taxpayers one million dollars.”

Curr took Crikey on a tour of the new detention facility, here are her impressions and photos, as told to Crikey:

The Christmas Island Camp is surrounded by high cliffs and jungle with one road out — it is a geographic prison by itself. The island is 2600kms from Perth and 360 kms from Jakarta — a bit far to swim.

The leitmotif is cage — all sixes and shapes. Everything is caged lights, gym, cameras everything.

  

Isolation cells are located in Red Compound. When I asked if these were for mentally ill people, I was told “No — it is for behaviour management”. To allow detainees fresh air the architects have designed “break-out” cages. These have steel grill sides and top on a concrete base. Here someone can enjoy their out of isolation time or in an alternative area with steel tables and seats bolted to the floor. Guantanamo had similar cages:

These pictures are from Gold Compound — the lowest security area. This is where we lunched:

Across the Grassed area are the rooms — double bunks and stainless steel bathrooms:

 

Here we are touring Education 1, which also encompasses the Intake area where buses/vans will deposit people from the boats. Here they can be assessed — tables and computers can be set up under the caged lights and interviews begin:

Families and children will not be processed here but back at the old detention centre and construction site which has accommodation in dongas and huts for 200/300. This is more like a run down caravan park or church camp, primitive but infinitely less alarming that the super deluxe, architect designed prison that is the new Camp, 22kms away from Settlement. Here are the entrance gates plus Control Room with a panel of screens to receive camera footage from every area in the centre. They can also send footage in real time to a Remote Control Room in Canberra:

 

Curr told Crikey that some of the Christmas Island locals have floated ideas for the as yet unused facility. Given that there are no boats on the horizon, and that a joint boat patrol initiative between Indonesia and Australia is proving to be very effective, the locals have proposed that the high tech and expensive facilities could be used as a university campus, a Asian/Australia conference centre or even the next location for the APEC conference…

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  • 1
    Mervyn Langford
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    A suitable use for this “facility”? I cannot think of anything more appropriate than Australia offering it (complete with us covering the operational costs) to the International Court of Justice (in The Hague) as an appropriate home for convicted genocide perpetrators and war criminals.
    I also look forward to hearing that the instigators of the present war in Iraq (including the leaders of the “Coalition of the Willing”), have been summonsed to appear at the Hague to account for their roles in this genocide.
    After all, military assaults on other countries are not acceptable in the 21st century - as George W. Bush said last week. Instigators of such atrocities should be in no doubt as to what will happen to them.
    It is certainly not a fit place for ordinary people seeking refuge from genocide and war.

  • 2
    firstdogonthemoon
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    [Chris Johnson
    Tuesday, 19 August 2008 5:33:41 PM
    Aren’t these photos just perfect for Australia Post’s next Christmas Island stamp series? For decades the island’s cultural and environmental history has been reflected in its production of unique stamps. Sensitive and stunning illustrations of various aspects of Christmas Island life have done the international circuit as collectors’ items. The atoll’s rare flora and fauna, molluscs, seabirds and significant milestones and events have been imaged as commemorative and definitive packages for discerning investors. The First Sighting, Christmas Toys, Faces of Christmas Island and Peace on Christmas Island will now stand in stark contrast to these happy snaps of a remote settlement’s transformation by successive Australian governments.]

    you might be on to something Chris - I may pinch your idea (or indeed, may I pinch your idea?)

  • 3
    Marilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    This last gasp of Ruddock’s was equal to 50 years of contributions to the UNHCR to help care for 21 million refugees - Ruddock reduced it to $8 million per annum.

    Of course the fact that Australia has helped to create another 5 million refugees in the last few years doesn’t seem to have sunk in just yet to anyone in this country, the UK or the US who all have a responsibility to help them and are not.

    I downloaded all of the photos last night, even the lights have little wire cages around them and the rest of it looks just like Gitmo with wire windows, wire walls, children’s wire cages and so on.

    Revolting.

  • 4
    Chris Johnson
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2008 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    firstdogonthemoon - go for it.. I had some images of my own!

  • 5
    Alan Hughston
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I dont understand the $22 million a year to maintain even while empty. For that money they could cover it waist (or waste) deep in mothballs.

  • 6
    Chris Johnson
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t these photos just perfect for Australia Post’s next Christmas Island stamp series? For decades the island’s cultural and environmental history has been reflected in its production of unique stamps. Sensitive and stunning illustrations of various aspects of Christmas Island life have done the international circuit as collectors’ items. The atoll’s rare flora and fauna, molluscs, seabirds and significant milestones and events have been imaged as commemorative and definitive packages for discerning investors. The First Sighting, Christmas Toys, Faces of Christmas Island and Peace on Christmas Island will now stand in stark contrast to these happy snaps of a remote settlement’s transformation by successive Australian governments.

  • 7
    Barry Rutherford
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    It certainly look’s like a prison & similar also to Woomera apart from the geography

  • 8
    Shay Gordon-Brown
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2008 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I reckon we could reduce Australia’s carbon footprint considerably if we just turned off the lights in this facility. I wonder how much we could reduce it if we turned off the computer monitors?

    I wouldn’t be particularly worried about having to fork out 22 million a year to keep this thing going. By the looks of the oxidising of the galvanised steel the chances are it will rust out within five years. Probably made from inferior foreign steel imports.

    Also the fire hydrant doesn’t comply with the Australian Standard. Probably installed by immigrant workers on 457 visas as Australian workers were unavailable. Very apropros.

  • 9
    Tom McLoughlin
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    The recent Good Weekend feature about the Island (more than the facility here) was most instructive. The story had a definite ‘white shoe brigade thwarted but still pitching’ feel to it. I was left feeling a joint US-Australia military base was on the cards.

    What’s the name of that island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that was annexed by the US military with suggestions of censorship about the fate of the locals?

    Mmm it’s all coming back. Diego Garcia flogged by the UK to the USA for a base in 1971. I think SBS Dateline may have done a catchup on this place too. Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Garcia#Politics
    and
    http://news.sbs.com.au/dateline/my_island_home_130762

  • 10
    Michael
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    The whole cabinet of the former rotten Howard government should be incarcerated here for a few months to bring them down to earth or perhaps we could dip into their super fund to pay for this ghatly joint.

  • 11
    Jack
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2008 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Take some “comfort” from the fact that the annual cost for maintenance and upkeep as quoted by Pamela Curr is “wrong”: the Senate Estimates committee in May had to fess up to Greens Senator Kerry Nettle in her last weeks of being in our Senate, that the annual money “just to have the detention centre” (i.e. when it’s empty) is not 22 million bucks, but 25 million, while Ric Towle, the Regional UNHCR Representative for Australia and New Zealand, told me last week that the figure is $30 million dollars.

  • 12
    Cathy
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    No doubt all members of the former Howard cabinet will use their free travel passes to inspect this shrine to their desecration of human rights. Yet another reason for Costello to rethink any rise from the ashes.

  • 13
    Shane
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    All I want to know is WHO is mainly benefiting from the ‘project’? Who won the bidding for this contract and which company was building the ‘facility’. It seems to me that the whole enterprise was solely designed for ‘job for the boys’. I would like to know who the boys are. Were their overseas contractors? Who is going to run this ‘golden cage’ prison. Where is our money going?
    It seems to me that we build wonderful structures overseas (ice cube in Bejing) and monstrocities at home, mainly prisons. South Australia is getting a Supermax prison for a half billion dollars. I would like to know the name of the company specialising in ‘architectural imprisonment’ of our landscape.

  • 14
    Peter
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Designed, built by an American based company no doubt, a concentration camp staffed by people who like to have total control over others.
    Even for an action by the horrible lying little rodent, it is way over the top………….it should be never be used for its’ original purpose.

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