Community leaders on Christmas Island say they are being treated like second-class citizens in comparison to asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat. Islanders blame the $400 million immigration detention centre at North West Point – where all sea arrivals are taken for health and security checks – for many of the problems facing the remote Australian territory. Inflated food prices, a lack of accommodation for tourists, a shortage of rental cars and even crumbling roads are all due to the immigration detention centre’s growing hunger for resources, they say.

Almost 1,500 people on 29 unauthorised vessels have been picked up on their way to Australia this year. There are currently 890 asylum seekers and 16 crew members being held on Christmas Island, which is 2,600km northwest of Perth and just 500km south of Jakarta. Some 726 are behind barbed wire in the detention centre itself. Another 145 are in the unfenced Phosphate Hill and construction camp facilities while 35 are living in the community. They’re generally processed and flown to the mainland within three months.

This week, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce visited the island and declared the asylum seekers “seem very happy here – which is a concern”. Many had arrived with multi-vitamin tablets, an indication, Senator Joyce declared, that they were economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. Immigration department figures suggest otherwise: 641 people sent to Christmas Island have been found to be genuine refugees this year, while just 29 have been returned home. The rest are still being processed.

The island has a 1,500-strong permanent population, including large ethnic Chinese and Malay communities. Many are sympathetic to Senator Joyce’s view. Local Islamic Council president Zainal Abdul Majid says the federal government uses taxpayers’ money to look after the detainees while the islanders are neglected. “They are being very well looked after, whereas the local community has got nothing out of the detention centre,” Majid said. “We feel as if we are second-class and not being looked after as well.”

Like most island leaders, Majid doesn’t want the detention centre closed down now that it’s been built at such expense. Rather, he wants more money to flow into the pockets of locals. “Even if one per cent of the total amount spent on detainees is invested into the local community then they will say there’s a balance and the government is looking after both sides.”

Christmas Island councillor Nora Koh, who is also president of the local women’s association, claims food prices have increased 50 per cent since the new detention centre opened in late 2008. “The traders are taking advantage of the increase in the population,” she says. “They know the economy on Christmas Island is up now but the refugees may not stay here long.” Koh believes the island’s four stores are essentially making hay while the sun shines.

When Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor visited earlier this month she pleaded for him to subsidise freight so fruit and vegetables could be sold more cheaply. It could be funded by increasing taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, which are currently duty free, Koh said. Others have suggested locals should be given an ID card that allows them to purchase goods at a discounted rate compared with the asylum seekers living in the community.

Those not locked up in the detention centre receive cash, phone cards and access to a store account equivalent to 90 per cent of the Newstart Allowance. That equates to $410 a fortnight. O’Connor says the assertion that the immigration department’s increased presence on the island has pushed up food prices needs to be tested. “We’ll look at that,” the minister said, adding that it could form part of the work of a newly formed commonwealth taskforce which is examining the economic and environmental sustainability of Christmas and nearby Cocos islands.

On a recent trip, journalist David Marr found prices weren’t as high as claimed. “But the food argument is as much about passion as price, and the feeling there should be something in this for them,” he wrote.

The immigration department itself insists it goes to great lengths to ensure its presence on Christmas Island doesn’t inflate prices. “The department monitors any impact on the community very carefully and takes appropriate steps such as freighting in food as required to provide for staff as well as the people that are in detention,” a spokeswoman said. “The arrival of a large number of asylum seekers doesn’t affect the community’s food supply.”

There are 50 departmental staff working on the island. About 100 locals are employed by the contractor which runs the detention centre, the food caterer and maintenance companies. Immigration says the “vast majority” of staff travel to and from work in a mini-bus provided by the department. It also sponsors a community bus service. But sometimes the department does hire rental cars, which are in short supply.

Tourism association development officer Bill Tatchell blames immigration for monopolising cars and accommodation beds. The island turns away more tourists than it accepts due to capacity constraints, he says. “We don’t have the resources to deliver because the resources are being used by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.” Like the Islamic Council and shire councillor Nora Koh, the tourism association wants the immigration department to invest in the island and build “key infrastructure”. In particular, islanders say the road to the detention centre needs to be upgraded before it crumbles from heavy use.

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