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A holding pen for Australia's refugees

Christmas Island's newest arrivals face an uncertain future as Australia gets tough on asylum seekers.
Last modified: 13 Aug 2013 19:51

Jason Bush-Jones cooks a BBQ on the jetty foreshore most Sunday mornings. The activity is typically Australian. But the view in front of him isn't. Most weekends, Jason fries his eggs in front of a hive of activity - dozens of asylum seekers being brought ashore. As Jason turns his sausages, right in front of him, Afghans, Iranians and Sri Lankan refugees are taking their first-ever steps on Australian soil.

Jason lives on Christmas Island, a place that was given its name by boat people. It was Christmas Day 1643 when Captain William Mynors spotted land after weeks at sea. It was later colonised by the British; when Australia became independent, it went too. Nearly 400 years on, a new colony has been established on Christmas Island. 

It's also for people who come by boat, and - on Sunday - Al Jazeera was given exclusive access.

The name "North West Point" evokes the sort of weather-beaten place where you might expect to find a lighthouse. Instead, it's where The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre has been built. It's huge. Sunk into a valley, between jungle-clad hills, it's a metallic village of clanging gates, high fences and barbed wire. Inside are 1,200 men, mostly Iranian and Afghan. Groups are separated according to when they arrived and live in accommodation blocks, separated by more gates and fences - cages within the cage.

In the middle of the centre is a big area the guards refer to as the "Green Heart". There was once a football pitch, but it's now more gravel than grass. There are little signs at the edge of the paths through it pointing out the different accommodation compounds, as if they're visitor attractions. They're all named after colours: yellow, green, gold.

This is a prison. Not a bad prison, as prisons go. But a prison nonetheless, for people who haven't committed any crime. A prison for people seeking asylum.

Until July, this wasn't actually a prison most inmates minded. Last week, I talked to refugees now living in Melbourne, who, last year, spent months bouncing around Australia's immigration detention centres. Most rated Christmas Island - their first - as their favourite.

That, though, has changed. Because for those now detained inside, this detention centre is not the first stop on a journey to Australian residency - as it was for those I met in Melbourne. Instead, the inside of this centre is all they'll ever see of Australia. As these asylum seekers arrived after July 19, they fall under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's tough new policy: no refugee-assessment process for anyone who arrives by boat; and no Australian residency - ever - however valid the claim. Instead asylum seekers will be flown to Papua New Guinea or Nauru. If they are to get permanent residency anywhere, it'll be there.

We watched a deportation of 39 men on Monday night. A convoy of flashing lights, chaperoning two buses, burst out of the night, through the airport perimeter gates and pulled alongside a charter plane on the tarmac. An hour-long operation followed: one by one detainees were taken from the bus, frog-marched up the steps of the plane. Most were grinning at the absurdity of the overkill around them: probably three times as many guards as the guarded.

“Better safe than sorry” was the line from Steven, the man who ran the operation. “Someone might try to make a run for it; or self-harm,” he said.

The plane took off just after eight o’clock; bound for a pit-stop in Darwin and then direct to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. But the real destination was uncertain. Is Australia as tough as its word? It hasn't been in the past. John Howard's Pacific Solution policy saw refugee processing going "offshore" but many, after a few months, still ended up in Australia after being confirmed as refugees. Julia Gillard's "Malaysia Solution" was blocked by Australia's High Court - no one was sent to Malaysia, so there was no solution. Will this time be different? Or is Rudd's policy a sticky-back deal, too flimsy to survive much past the coming election?

Among those who live on Christmas Island, most want the boats to stop. Despite the refugee industry being good for the local economy, not all have profited, as an influx of officials and contractors with bulging wallets have priced long-term islanders out. But most islanders want to reclaim their island as a retreat, or re-brand it as a holiday destination.

They didn't like the reputation it developed - as a destination for the desperate.

But they really don't like what it's recently become - Australia's holding pen. That's a moniker they're only prepared to accept if it's temporary.  If Australia's government's policy works.