Amid talk of a new "Pacific Solution", where the extraterritorial immigration detention centres created in response to the 2001 Tampa incident are now being reactivated, the Australian government has also nearly completed a massive new detention centre within Australian territory:
The remote settlement of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which is in fact closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland, is the site of a new closed immigration centre capable of housing 800 people, costing an estimated $210 million.
Kerry Nettle, a Greens senator in the Australian Parliament, recently inspected the construction of the centre and took the :: photos linked to this article.
The Christmas Island detention centre can be seen as an alternative to the Pacific Solution camps on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
The Australian government would prefer to use the extraterritorial camps, diverting immigrants who arrive by boat away from the Australian mainland to stop them accessing the Australian refugee determination system. Instead they are processed offshore by the IOM under a different, international regime. Recently the government revealed that it had renewed its arrangements with Nauru, paying $40 million last Septmeber to the Nauruan government to continue holding asylum seekers for Australia.
Recently 43 West Papuans crossed the Timor Sea from Papua (a province of Indonesia) and arrived in northern Australia. They claimed asylum on the basis of persecution by the Indonesian government for their pro-Papuan independence activities. The Australian Department of Immigration recognised them as refugees and granted them asylum. This provoked a furious response from the Indonesian government, including withdrawing the Indonesian Ambassador from Australia and accusing the Australian government of supporting secessionist forces in West Papua.
The Australian government has placated the Indonesians by introducing new laws (dubbed 'Pacific Solution 2') which would divert all asylum seekers arriving in boats to extraterritorial camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This would mean that future West Papuan asylum seekers would probably not be settled in Australia.
However a significant number of MPs in the ruling Liberal party have refused to support the new legislation. The Prime Minister is now negotiating with them, and debate will resume after the winter Parliamentary recess.
It seems strange that the government should spend so much money on building the Christmas Island detention centre when it is maintaining the Pacific Solution arrangements with Nauru. One explanation might be that, since the Pacific Solution depends on the co-operation of other nations, the politics of it are beyond the control of the Australian state and it therefore needs to plan for the contingency of the termination of these arrangements.
Christmas Island is the closest thing to an extraterritorial island within Australian territory. Its isolation and the inability of legal advisors to get access to people detained out there will give the government a substantial degree of freedom in the way they deal with potential asylum claims. The new detention centre may also be part of the strategy of sending out a warning signal to immigrants by adopting harsh, cruel and highly visible measures in the treatment of asylum seekers.
The current system of detention on Christmas Island is reasonably benign, with community accommodation being available for women and children. It is unlikely that the new centre will allow this degree of freedom.
This article by Damian Spruce [damian.spruce at studio.unibo.it] was published first on 05 July 2006 at :: meltingpot.org