Australia’s biggest white elephant ready to open

Australia’s biggest white elephant, the $500m-plus Christmas Island detention centre, has been handed over to the Immigration Department by the builders. The ‘jail’ was built to cope with floods of boat refugees – since January 2002, a total of 250 people have arrived. Reports indicate USA counter-terrorism officials have their eyes on the new facility. The Department of Immigration took delivery of the new Christmas Island detention centre – currently Australias greatest white elephant – from the builders between 9 and 14 May. These dates were deduced from the department’s website and a limited conversation: the media section refused to answer questions about handover date, cost, size, number of detainees, etc. For that reason, the information below is from non-department sources…despite CLAs best efforts to check the facts with the departments media section – Ed. ign="centre">

Refugees’ children: for whom the bells toll

bleakly on Christmas Island

In 2005 Australian Prime Minister John Howard bullied through parliament his plan for the building of a detention centre on Christmas Island, a mid-ocean Australian Territory more than 2500km north-west of Perth.

He promised his own irate, Liberal Party backbenchers that there would be no morerefugee children in detention. According to the then-Australian government, the Christmas Island detention centre would be built ‘as a deterrent’.

So much for then-PM Howard’s promises. Three years later, what is the reality?

The Christmas Island Centre (CIC), 2400km from Perth and 2000km from Darwin, has acapacity for 800 beds for men, women and children. It has a children’s compound. There is an eight-cot nursery, a childcare centre, play area and classrooms.

It is, effectively, a $500m maximum security prison…for adults and children. The Alcatraz of the Indian Ocean has overtones of Big Brother surveillance worse than any prison in theworld.

Occupants (prisoners) will wear electronic identify tags or cards 24 hours a day, seven days a week (a department media spokesman denied this). They will live inside charged electric boundary fences, with companion earth probes to detect tunneling and movement.Cameras and microphones under eaves, on roofs and in every room and cell monitor alloccupant movement constantly.

Cells have remotely-controlled, centrally-operated, electric doors. CCTV cameras beingconstantly watched in the master control room link back to Canberra, where every moveinside and around the jail – some 5000km away – can be doubly monitored, second-byᆳsecond (a department media spokesman denied this).

There are two ‘management units’, Red One and Red Two (solitary cells of the style that incarcerated mentally ill Australian Cornelia Rau 23 hours a day). The visiting rooms have non-contact glass panels.

The CIC is in Australia’s ‘Excision Zone (EZ), an area made up of 4,600 islands to thenorth, west and east of Australia. They are part of Australia if Australia wants to claim sovereignty over ocean territory, and mining rights, but they are not part of Australia if refugees want to land on these smoke and mirror islands of despair.

PM Howard cunningly made sure than any future detention centre would be located whereit would ‘protect’ us, and Australia could effectively weasel out of customary responsibility under international refugee law, to which it is a signatory. All boat people who end up in theEZ have no legal rights, not the faintest prospect of assessment, no basic human rightsand no hope for a future. They can be, Australia’s High Court has declared, locked up forgood, and never released.

New Prime Minister Kevin (‘me too’) Rudd is happy to go along with his predecessor’s plan, and will use the island gulag just as PM Howard intended. The Labor Government has abandoned the ‘Pacific Solution’, which used Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru to keep refugee claimants at arms’ length. Labor instead will be using a CIC-ARSapproach: Christmas Island Centre – Avoiding Refugees Solution.

The CIC jail has been contrasted with the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) just reaching completion in the Australian Capital Territory, and due to open in late-2008.

But there is no comparison – they are poles apart. It is a given that no-one wants to endup under ‘solarium’ supervision on Christmas Island, whereas the new ACT prison has cottages and cells that may be too comfortable. The cottages, for offenders of lesser crimes, are so ‘cushy’, with self-catering facilities, lounge room with plasma TVs, and barbecues, that it is feared it will become a drawcard for Canberra’s homeless who, wearyof sleeping rough, could well think: Hey, I could commit a crime, then do the time in five-star accommodation!

The ACT’s AMC prison is been built and will be managed under the aegis of human rights legislation; the hidden excesses of the CIC-ARS jail in the Indian Ocean are further cogentreasons for Australian needing a national charter of rights and responsibilities.

Footnote: US Homeland Security officials are reported to have flown from Singapore specially to inspect the Christmas Island Detention Centre. Why?

by Marie Gordon, CLA member, Palmerston ACT


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