When federal Labor MP Michael Danby visited Christmas Island last year he declared that the new $400 million, 800-bed Christmas Island detention centre, a legacy of the Howard government, was “an enormous white elephant”.

For more than a year Immigration Minister Chris Evans maintained the pretence that the Government’s softening of policies on asylum seekers would have no material effect on the number of arrivals. To support this fiction, the Government transferred boat people to Christmas Island, but housed them in a construction camp, private accommodation, and an obsolete detention facility at Phosphate Hill. Anywhere but the Christmas Island detention centre.

Today, the detention centre is not just full, it is overflowing. The Government has been forced to ship 200 bunk beds to Christmas Island, where more than 1000 detainees are being housed. Another 58 are on their way. The Rudd Government is readying another 500-bed detention centre in Darwin. It is also funding the construction of yet another detention centre, in Sumatra, on behalf of the Indonesian Government.

The policy announced last year that “detention in immigration detention centres would be a last resort” is now in tatters. For the past two months, boat people are have been intercepted up at a rate of 100 a week. Thousands of asylum seekers from South Asia have reached Indonesia to apply for refugee status in Australia or by-pass border controls and reach Australia by boat.

The Christmas Island detention centre, with its 800 beds, shows that the numbers are far higher than the previous government envisaged under its policies. Not only has the number of boat people built steadily since the change of policy, so too have the tensions and confrontations implicit in people smuggling. As this piece was being written, the Indonesian military was engaged in a volatile and potentially life-threatening stand-off with a small cargo ship packed with an estimated 260 Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

The ship was heading for Christmas Island when it was intercepted. The stand-off is taking place in Indonesian waters and was instigated by a tip from Australian intelligence. Some of the Sri Lankans on board are threatening to scuttle the ship or jump into the water rather than allow the vessel to be towed back to Indonesia. In accordance with the tactics long used by people smugglers, the putative asylum seekers are engaging in brinkmanship. Since arriving in Indonesia they have destroyed their passports and are now threatening their own lives.

This tactic has already produced deadly results this year. On April 16, five Afghan asylum seekers were killed when their boat exploded off the Ashmore Reef. Within 24 hours, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said he had been advised by police that the explosion was the result of deliberate sabotage. He was roundly criticised by the Rudd Government. For six months, the Federal Government refused to comment on the incident, saying it was under police investigation. Last week police confirmed that the fatal fire had been deliberately lit.

The Premier accused the Government of delay and dissembling: “I was quoting from a formal report from the emergency personnel at the site.” He said the Rudd Government had been given the same report at the same time, but said nothing. He was also highly critical of the Federal Government’s decision last week to grant asylum status to the remaining 42 Afghans who had been on the boat, before the coronial inquiry had even taken place.

Barnett said the perpetrators of the crime had never been identified, Australian Navy personnel had been injured by the explosion, and there was a possibility that some of those complicit in the deaths had now been granted asylum status. This, he said, was another signal of weakness from the Government.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was talking tough about “illegal immigrants”. But thousand of people have read the signals sent by his Government and mobilised to bypass Australian refugee and immigration procedures. They have taken this risk in the confidence that once they enter Australian waters, they are highly likely to be rewarded with Australian residency. While that confidence remains well founded, the ugly events of the past year and the present day will continue.

SOURCE

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