Detention centre in the jungle

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Thursday, September 6, 2012
Christmas Island is like no place on earth. The plane descends into the jungle, finding a small strip of runway next to an airport so small it looks more like a gas station. The thick, humid air engulfs me and I quickly shed a layer of clothing. I jump in my rental four wheel drive and start exploring. The landscape looks like a cross between Jurassic Park and Fern Gully, both places I thought were entirely fictional up until now. A few wrong turns here and there (the map given to me by the car rental guy was hand drawn with no street names) and I'm bouncing up and down on a dirt road, flanked by palm trees and twisted hanging branches. I can hear the life of the jungle echoing, sounds of creatures I'd rather not encounter. When the path looks too uncharted, I turn back and head to town, past the outdoor theatre which is playing Brave on Saturday night, past the Poon San district where most of the Chinese and Malay live. I pass Flying Fish Cove, where coral reef provides some of the best snorkeling in the world and where rusty migrant ships carrying asylum seekers — from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan or Sri Lanka — arrive on a very regular basis.

Drive a bit further and I reach Settlement, where there are little shops selling snorkel gear and the Golden Bosun pub, where locals grab a drink after work and tourists watch the sun set. The Golden Bosun is also the spot where on December 15, 2010, a boat carrying asylum seekers was tossed onto the jagged rocks, killing 50 men, women and children. Locals say they are still haunted by the traumatic experience, watching helplessly from shore as dozens called out for help. It's hard to find someone here on Christmas Island who hasn't been affected somehow by the migrants ships that arrive from Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka. 

Many who live here work at the detention centre, on Northwest Point, which was opened in 2008, at a cost of almost $400 million. Some have dubbed it Australia's Guantanamo Bay. Right now 841 men are detained at the centre, which is wrapped in a fence topped with barbed wire and guarded 24/7. When I try to take an aerial photo from the other side of the fence, I'm quickly the subject of terse inquiries from guards, even though I'm not on detention centre property. Women, children and families are held at what's known as Construction Camp, a lower-security facility several kilometres away.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship is trying to process people through Christmas Island much quicker, within weeks, because studies have shown the risk of self harm and suicide attempts grow the longer people are kept in detention. In the past, men have been held here for years, creating lasting emotional and psychological problems. Immigration officials say tensions at the Christmas Island facility are higher than normal, because men who've arrived after Aug. 13 have been told they face the risk of being processed off-shore on Nauru or Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, the Australian government's commitment following an expert panel led by former chief of defence staff Angus Houston. The tensions haven't escalated to violence, which has happened in the past in the form of riots, but some of the men are vocal about their frustrations and fears. I'm told to keep my camera in my bag and only take it out when the Serco administrator deems it safe. Some of the men smile at the immigration staff, others look tired with blood shot eyes. 

When I walk through around 8 a.m., dozens of men are lined up at the cantine waiting to buy cigarettes or candy or other amenities using points they earn for participating in classes or volunteer activities. I visit the processing centre, where seven men are being processed into the facility after arriving by boat on the Cocos Islands and being flown here for detention. They look worn and weary as they fill out forms in their native language.They are given fresh clothes and a USB stick so they can download necessary documents they may have online. They face a mountain of uncertainty as the Australian government decides how to return to the new incarnation of the Howard government's Pacific Solution. 


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