The “ghetto-like” Christmas Island detention centre is bursting at the seams as boat arrivals swell. But housing asylum seekers at the long-defunct Curtin facility in the desolate north of Western Australia could make conditions even worse.

That’s the view of Curtin University human rights academic Professor Linda Briskman, who remembers the “dire” conditions at the Curtin facility, which immigration minister Chris Evans has said will host up to 300 male detainees.

Briskman spoke to Crikey from Christmas Island, where she said conditions have “deteriorated”. The number of detainees fluctuates but reports this week put the total figure at 2358, while the renovated capacity of the facilities is only 2040 people.

“It’s overcrowded, absolutely stacked to capacity,” she said. “There have had to be more and more makeshift accommodation facilities set up. People are living in demountables, housed in tents.”

She raises concerns over the facility where women and children are kept, called the construction camp: “That’s what it looks like. It’s not the place to have families. It’s quite small, rather ghetto-like.”

She pointed out the main centre is a maximum security detention centre, so people don’t have freedom of movement, except with guards. “Most people don‘t get out of the centre very much at all. Taking people out for outings is quite difficult …  People’s basic liberties are taken away,” she said. At the other two sites, the security is still present, if less evident.

“They do have doctors on the island,” she said, “and quite a well-equipped medical centre. As the numbers have increased, people have found it increasingly difficult to get the health care they want in a timely manner.”

People have suffered a lot during their journeys to arrive at the island and are quite traumatised, then experience further trauma when they are placed in detention, she said. “Psychological services are there but I think they need to be increased.

“People who are going to have their claims suspended under the new policy, Afghans and Sri Lankans, that’s going to cause greater uncertainty than we’re even seeing now.”

The Curtin army base — located near Derby, a small community on the north-western coast of Western Australia — was used to house asylum seekers under the Howard government until it was closed in 2002. Refugee advocates contacted by Crikey were reluctant to guess at the current state of the facilities, since access had traditionally been tightly restricted and few people had been able to visit them.

“The conditions were pretty dire,” Professor Briskman said, adding that one of the concerns about the reopening of the centre is that it’s not yet clear what it will look like.

“The main concern is that it’s so isolated,” she said. “Why locate people in such remote places away from public view and away from access to all the resources needed for someone’s well-being?

“There’s basic provision of food and sustenance and beds but that’s not all people need. One of the concerns that I’ve got is that people are unlikely to get visitors. When detainees get visitors it certainly helps boost their morale.”

Professor Briskman believes mandatory detention should be abandoned. And failing that, “neither Christmas Island nor Curtin should be a place where people are processed. People should be relocated to cities or large regional towns, and they should be in community settings. It’s a highly politically charged decision. In effect we’re increasing the huge amount already spent on mandatory detention.

“It’s a beautiful place. The detention centre is really a blot on the landscape.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey