Christmas Island escape highlights bad conditions

Dramatic scenes unfolded as at least 150 asylum seekers, believed to be mostly Iranians, broke out of the Christmas Island detention centre on Saturday, March 12. After pushing down a fence, a number of detainees fled to the north-west tip of the island, which is covered in jungle. Almost 20 men are still at large, but are being hunted down by Australian Federal Police.

Some of the men walked through the jungle to inhabited areas of the island. Over the next two days, some went to the mosque, some went swimming and some went to the airport to sit and continue their protest. There was no crime, theft or violence of any kind towards any of the residents of the island; the asylum seekers’ protests were completely peaceful. On Sunday night most of the men returned to the camp satisfied with their efforts to protest the government’s inhumane system of mandatory detention.

Protests occurred throughout the centre against the conditions and length of time people are being held there. During the unrest, detention centre staff were evacuated twice, with police and the mainstream media claiming buildings were set on fire. Closer inspection of the footage shown on television across all the major networks reveals they were the tents the detainees were housed in - hardly grand structures. The tents were mould-ridden and plagued by mosquitoes and should never have been used in the tropical climate of Christmas Island. On March 22, ABC Radio National reported that immigration department figures showed that the average time spent in detention in the past year has nearly trebled, to 214 days.

According to sources within the detention centre, frustration has been building over delays in processing asylum claims and restrictions placed on movements between compounds. They say the protest was sparked by a letter the asylum seekers received from the government. The contents of the letter are as yet unknown, but it has angered those in the detention centre.

All Serco guards were withdrawn from the detention compound to search for the escaped detainees, and all compounds were locked down, leaving the remaining asylum seekers unattended. Twenty of the detainees were captured and taken back into what Serco terms the “high security management unit”, otherwise known as the Red Compound. After heavy rain, many returned to the detention centre of their own accord.

Protesters attacked

On March 16 a group of around 400 asylum seekers were walking in the open area of the detention centre in an attempt to speak to media representatives on the island. Police used tear gas on the protesters and fired bean bag rounds, breaking a man’s leg, even as they were pleading with them not to shoot. The protesters were carrying white sheets to show that the protest was peaceful. Some were even carrying flowers to give to the police officers. None of the protesters were allowed to speak to the media.

Police took control of the detention centre and again used tear gas the following day to disperse a protest involving more than 250 people. They are now looking at laying charges of arson, attempted assault and theft against the protesters.

This is one of the first times bean bag bullets have been used in Australia. They are small fabric pillows filled with lead shot, fired from shotguns, and are potentially lethal. There were reports from detainees that rubber bullets had been used, but the government initially denied this, saying only tear gas was used.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard then justified the use of tear gas and admitted the use of bean bag bullets. “I understand that police confronted with situations of difficulty do have to make judgment calls about how they will respond”, she told reporters in Canberra.

“Whether it’s on Christmas Island or whether it’s in the CBD of one of our capital cities on a Saturday night, police have to make those judgment calls.”

The last time tear gas was used on asylum seekers was in 2003 at the Port Hedland Detention Centre, under the Howard government. This is the first time riot bullets have been used against people in Australia.

An extra 80 police with more tear gas and ammunition were flown in two RAAF Hercules planes to the island, taking the AFP contingent to more than 200. More than 60 extra Serco staff were also flown to the island.

Overcrowding

The detention centre was originally built to hold 800 people. At the time of the protest, 2300 detainees, mostly male, were being held there, some in tents. Since Christmas Island is in a tropical climate, this poses serious health risks.

Refugee rights activists have been saying for a long time that Christmas Island was a tinder box ready to ignite. Some detainees have been held there for over two years after having already met the criteria of refugee status determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are more than 900 refugees at Christmas Island awaiting security clearance from ASIO. These decisions by ASIO are secret and non-reviewable, so even if someone is refused, they are not allowed to appeal and are not even allowed to know why they are refused.

The Immigration Department is planning to move 600 of the asylum seekers to the mainland, with more to follow. Up to 1200 detainees could be moved. According to the Australian, the average time asylum seekers spend in detention has almost tripled to 214 days since the Labor government suspended visa processing for Sri Lankan and Afghan arrivals last year.

These are people already traumatised by war, torture and persecution in their country of origin. Some would be survivors from the boat wreck that occurred in December 2010. Locking these people up indefinitely is a form of torture intensifying the harm they have already endured.

There have been many cases of medical neglect in Christmas Island and other detention centres. The Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN), a Perth-based activist group, has learned of one case where it took three months for a man to be sent to Perth for proper medical attention for a bullet wound he received while leaving Indonesia. The response from the Indonesian government to Australia’s pressure to “stop the boats” has been to fire on them.

End mandatory detention!

The latest events on Christmas Island reinforce the urgency of closing the detention centre there. The overcrowding, lack of resources and remoteness make Christmas Island a particularly unsuitable place for asylum seekers.

A source inside the detention centre told RRAN that suicide attempts are more common than is known. The source said that “slashings” are a daily occurrence and “cut-downs” - the slang term used for cutting down people who have attempted to hang themselves - occur weekly. The fact that there are slang terms for these forms of suicide indicates how common they are. Cleaning staff have been complaining to their union, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, that they have to clean up blood on a daily basis as a result of suicide attempts.

Activists from RRAN have been campaigning for the end of mandatory detention for almost 10 years. Peter Wilkie from RRAN stated in response to the recent events, “What we have seen on Christmas Island is the inevitable consequence of overcrowding and slow processing. The government was warned that this would happen, time and time again, but has been too afraid of criticism by the opposition to take the appropriate action to prevent these incidents. While the ALP is too gutless to take up a political argument with the Coalition over Australia’s approach to asylum seekers, we will continue to see a hard and punitive detention system that is destroying people.”

RRAN is organising a trip over Easter to Curtin detention centre to protest against mandatory detention. The trip will take place from April 21 to 27. For more details, or to register, email: <curtinbus@converge2011.net>