Just utter the magic word “asylum” and the door is open. Comments below by Scott Morrison, Australia’s Federal opposition spokesman on immigration and citizenship
Christmas Island is overrun with asylum seekers to the point where the detention centre has become a visa factory for people smugglers. Ten days ago I stood on the shore at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island watching 30 Afghan asylum seekers transfer from HMAS Larrakia into the custody of immigration officials. Their boat was one of two that had been “intercepted” within 12 hours of each other the previous weekend. It’s usually not too hard to find these boats, because they are usually looking for us. Getting intercepted is the point. Christmas Island is no longer a deterrent, it’s the destination. The arrival of another boat is not a strange sight. It occurs twice a week these days. They’re more predictable than Sydney ferries.
Immigration, Customs officials and police have the transfer process down to a fine art. They should, they’ve been getting plenty of practice. Since August 2008, 78 boats have illegally arrived in Australian waters, carrying almost 3600 people. Just this year, there have been 10 arrivals at an average rate of 100 passengers per week.
When I left the island I was told they had 1848 beds (including 200 in tents) and there was currently 1556 people in residence. While this represented a ten-fold increase in the detention population over the past year, it was clear, things were only getting worse. Since then another 320 people have been intercepted or transferred to the island, including one large vessel, carrying 181 passengers that motored straight into the harbour. Another was picked up on Thursday morning near the Ashmore Islands. During the same time, only 89 people left the island.
Despite its denials, operations at Christmas Island, under the government’s failed border protection policies, are simply not sustainable. It is therefore no surprise that last week I was able to reveal in Parliament that the costs of running operations on Christmas Island had blown out by $132million this year, that’s more than a 100per cent increase.
We are a generous nation and this is reflected in the way asylum seekers are being treated. In fact, if we looked after our first Australians in central Australia, where I visited last year, as well as we do those on Christmas Island, then there would be no gap to close. The key difference is that within 100 or so days, the vast majority of those on Christmas Island will be living on the Australian mainland with a permanent visa. Indigenous children have no such guarantee of ever being released from their desperate situation.
One of the more pleasing elements of the visit was to see that the many reforms introduced by the former Coalition government, such as case management, parallel processing, community detention for those at risk, separate facilities for families, women and children and a range of other improvements, are making a real difference.
In fact there is not one practical reform you can point to on Christmas Island that has been introduced as an initiative of the current government. Where they have made changes is to undermine the fundamentals of our border protection regime, by providing permanent visas to those arriving illegally, doing special deals for the Oceanic Viking passengers that traded away national security and being prepared to compromise offshore processing by taking people to the mainland before their asylum claims have been determined.
The government’s changes have enhanced the product offered by people smugglers. They are now doing a roaring trade, but you can only come if you have the money. It is not uncommon, as I saw, for those arriving to have wads of cash in various currencies, in excess of $US1000 ($1140) at least. This is after paying up to $20,000 per person. Residence in Australia should not be driven by the highest bidder, where people smugglers ultimately decide who comes.
The government’s changes have created a sea highway to Christmas Island that has become a visa factory for people smugglers. As long as these policies remain and the government continues in denial, people will continue to risk their lives on this journey. Also, places for those waiting five years in Indonesia and generations in camps, like those in Thailand, will be asked to wait even longer. These seem to me to be good reasons to change these policies and stop the boats.