Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre is expected to keep growing as “asylum seekers” continue to arrive

Labor in opposition called it a white elephant, the Australian of the Year has labelled it a factory for mental illness, while the federal opposition says it’s a visa factory. However it’s described, the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre is never far from the spotlight.

A group of Tamils staged a peaceful protest inside the compound this week, which included a short a hunger strike that has now ended. Refugee advocates say the Tamils are angry about a mobile phone ban and long processing times, inflamed by the fast-tracking of asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking who struck a deal with the federal government after refusing to disembark from the Australian customs boat in Indonesian waters.

Built by the former Liberal government at a cost of more than $400 million, the centre has operated only under the current federal Labor government. Tucked away on Christmas Island’s northwest point, the detention centre is holding about 1564 asylum seekers. The latest boatload arrived on the island for processing on Friday. Despite the monsoon season asylum seekers continue to arrive in Australian waters bound for Christmas Island, with one group intercepted last week just one nautical mile (less than 2km) to the north of the detention centre.

Last year Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced capacity of the centre and other facilities on the island would be doubled from 1200 to 2200, at a cost of $40 million, to cope with the expected influx of asylum seekers. A Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman said the current capacity is 1848.

Senator Steve Fielding and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison visited the island last week to inspect the detention facilities, which also include alternate accommodation for children and women, along with traumatised asylum seekers. Senator Fielding likened the accommodation for most as ‘akin to a motel’. He said Australians did not need to be concerned about how detainees were being looked after other than those who are living in tents erected to provide further capacity at the centre. ‘It’s very good accommodation, I think people are well fed, they’re well looked after, I think the only concern is the tent city and quite frankly they are at capacity and bursting at the seams and that just can’t continue,’ he told AAP.

Senator Fielding said both he and Mr Morrison were kept away from the protesting Tamils who were sitting outside under a shaded area near the centre’s oval. ‘We were kept well away from there, in one way it would have been nice to go and chat to them about their concerns but they were very concerned about making the situation worse,’ he said. ‘They’re basically saying they are going to remain on a hunger strike until they’re treated as human beings. ‘The conditions here are quite good so I’m not so sure exactly what they are complaining about.’ Mr Morrison said some of the detainees had been living in tents for 28 days. [How sad!] The federal government had to realise it had a problem and the real issue was to halt the number of boats arriving, he said.

The hunger strike had been triggered by the fact asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking had been given a special deal to fast track their cases that others had not, Mr Morrison said. ‘I don’t think they have a claim frankly when it comes to their treatment, I think their treatment here is outstanding,’ he said.

Reports of interviews with detainees showed people smugglers were selling a good product to asylum seekers bound for Christmas Island, which was essentially a ‘visa factory’, Mr Morrison said. He said detainees reported people smugglers were saying the only country to come to was Australia. ‘They never said that about Australia when the coalition was in government.’

Boats will continue to arrive, both Mr Morrison and Senator Fielding say. And with the boats come the immigration workers, the police, customs staff, health workers and security guards needed to run the detention centre. The remote island, 2600km northwest of Perth, is closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland.