There's more to the reopening of Christmas Island's detention centre, immigration experts say

Immigration experts have questioned the reopening of the Christmas Island detention centre, saying there is more to it that dealing with the impacts of the pandemic.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Christmas Island in 2019. Source: AAP

Immigration experts say Australia's decision to reopen the controversial immigration detention centre on Christmas Island is to keep detainees "out of sight and out of mind". 

Australian Border Force confirmed on Tuesday it was reopening the centre - more than 1,500kms from the mainland - to handle “capacity pressures”.

More criminal detainees were awaiting deportation and there was reduced capacity in mainland detention centres due to coronavirus, it said. Deportations have also slowed or been halted due to a lack of international flights.

But Amy Nethery, a senior lecturer in politics and policy at Deakin University, acknowledged while the fears of outbreaks in hotels holding asylum seekers and refugees were real, ongoing protests at the centres had brought about political pressure. 

“The hotels have also been the focus of protests around Australia of people recognising the high risk of COVID-19," she told SBS News.

"So I think the government is under pressure to find a solution to that problem. Christmas Island is out of mind and out of sight and has been used by the government for that reason in the past.” 

Similarly, Alison Battisson, a lawyer from Human Rights for All, said the decision was to keep detainees away from public view. 

“It is essentially to move people out of sight and out of mind, and to effectively warehouse people whose detention has been extended in time due in part to the [Home Affairs] department's inaction and in part due to things beyond the department’s control like COVID-19,” she said. 

SBS News has sent a list of questions to the Department of Home Affairs. It has not responded.

'It will break them' 

Ms Battisson said detainees on Christmas Island would face issues such as lack of medical care and would be even more removed and isolated from support and legal access.

“The psychological impact of being sent back to Christmas Island, the place many people started their detention in Australia, psychologically, it will break them, because they haven’t moved forward in the half-decade since they arrived on Christmas Island,” she said.

Ms Battisson also questioned the cost of reopening the centre at a time when Australia was in recession. 

The Department of Home Affairs did not confirm the cost of reopening the centre, but Ms Battisson said she expected it to run into the tens of millions of dollars. 

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre.
Source: SBS News

Michelle Peterie, a research fellow at the University of Wollongong, also questioned the cost, saying there were much cheaper alternatives, such as community detention, if the six centres in mainland Australia were at capacity. 

“There are currently six prison-like detention centres on mainland Australia. If these facilities are at capacity, safer and cheaper options are available, most notably releasing detainees who pose no threat to the Australian public into the community," she said. 

In July, the Commonwealth Ombudsman recommended the government release detainees who weren't a risk to the community from detention in order to lessen the risk of COVID-19 spreading. 

"We consider that it would be highly desirable for fewer people to be held in immigration detention," the ombudsman said at the time. 

The Christmas Island immigration detention facility was closed in 2018, before being reopened this year to quarantine travellers returning to Australia from virus-hit Wuhan in China.

A smaller facility on the other side of the island is being used to accommodate the Tamil family of four from Biloela, who are contesting their deportation while their youngest child’s asylum claim remains unresolved.

Scott Morrison (second from left) touring North West Point Detention Centre on Christmas Island last year.
Source: AAP

Ms Nethery said it was important detainees brought to Australia under Medevac legislation continued to have access to the medical treatment available to them in large population centres.

She also raised the question of how the other residents in the general community on Christmas Island were going to be kept safe.

“There is also the challenge that there is an increased risk of spreading the coronavirus to the Christmas Island community, who have avoided it so far," she said. 

"You have all the fly-in-fly-out workers, the guards and staff are at risk of transmitting the virus there as well.”

A Border Force spokesperson said on Tuesday: “With unlawful non-citizens continuing to move from prison to immigration detention, and with required COVID-19 distancing measures in place within the detention network, this is placing the detention network under pressure.” 

Detainees will be temporarily transferred to the facility at North West Point on Christmas Island in the weeks ahead, they said. 

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Published 5 August 2020 at 4:44pm, updated 5 August 2020 at 5:42pm
By Jarni Blakkarly