A committee of business, political and cultural leaders on Christmas Island are demanding further community consultation after the Australian government announced it was reopening an immigration detention centre on the island.
Community leaders on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island fear the reopening of an immigration detention centre will see an influx of coronavirus on the island that has previously recorded no confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, the Australian Border Force (ABF) announced it would be reopening the North West Point facility, which was closed in 2018, to “relieve pressure” on detention centres on the mainland while COVID-19 travel restrictions meant detainees couldn’t be deported.
President of the Shire of Christmas Island, Gordon Thomson, told SBS News the local council was not informed of the plans until Tuesday evening when the public announcement was made.
In a community factsheet sent to Mr Thomson on Tuesday, an ABF spokesperson said between 200 and 300 staff members would be transferred temporarily to the island “in the coming weeks”.
“The long term interests of the island have been stuffed up so often, so many times by the Commonwealth," Mr Thomson said.
"They don’t give a stuff, they just make the decisions that suit the Commonwealth without concern for the impacts on the Islanders.
“We would rather they all piss off, we don’t want the detention centre reopened. It’s very simple.”
The island’s Community Consultative Committee, which includes local politicians such as Mr Thomson, business owners and cultural leaders, on Thursday released a statement opposing the reopening of the facility, citing the threat of COVID-19 and the long-term economic impact from a lack of tourism.
“The big issue, even for the business people, is health first, business later,” Mr Thomson said.
At the last census in 2016, the population of Christmas Island was 1,843.
“We’ve got a significant proportion of the population living in high-density housing units in three-storey blocks, so if the virus comes it’s going to go through those sites,” Mr Thomson said.
There are limited medical facilities on the island, which is located more than 1,500 kilometres from the West Australian coast, with pregnant women flown to Perth to give birth. There are no ventilators and only three doctors who support the community 24 hours a day.
“As far as COVID is concerned, we haven’t had an outbreak yet to try it out and we don’t want one,” Mr Thomson said.
The reopening would also decimate the island’s growing tourism industry, he said, describing it as “Prison Island”.
The committee is demanding Australia's Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories, Nola Marino, hold a public meeting on the island to discuss the plans.
An ABF spokesperson told SBS News there was no increased risk of COVID-19 to the Christmas Island community as a result of the reopening.
Detainees and staff would adhere to quarantine requirements enforced by the West Australian government when required, they said, adding that staff who did not quarantine would not engage with the community.
“The [North West Point] facility is a purpose-built high-security immigration detention centre at least 15 kilometres away from the main settlement areas,” they said, adding that it has its own medical services provided by International Health and Medical Services.
Detainees will also be transferred on chartered flights and would not pass through the main airport terminal, they said.
The group of detainees that will be transferred to the island will be people who have been previously convicted of crimes, including assault, sexual offences, drugs, and other violent offences.
“This cohort is detained because of their risk to the Australian community,” an ABF spokesperson said.
People who commit a crime while on a visa in Australia face automatic deportation. In a tweet on Wednesday, the ABF confirmed no refugees would be among those transferred to the island.
The controversial immigration facility was closed by the federal government in 2018, only to be reopened the following year amid fears an influx of asylum seekers would be transferred to Australia under the now-repealed Medevac laws.
Most recently, the North West Point facility was used as a quarantine facility for Australians evacuated from Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19, in February.
Currently, the only other people in immigration detention on the Island are a Tamil family of four from Biloela in Queensland, who have lived on the island for almost a year while they contest their deportation. They are currently in a different facility to North West Point.
Last week, the mother, Priya Murugappan, was returned to the island after spending nine days in a Perth hospital, where she was treated for abdominal pain.
No immigration detainees have so far tested positive to coronavirus, an ABF spokesperson said.
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