Pressure To Open Detention Centre

Pressure to open detention centre

Yuko Narushima
The Sydney Morning Herald
December 9, 2008

PRESSURE is mounting on the Federal Government to open the doors to a $400 million detention centre on Christmas Island built by the previous government but never used, as a sixth boatload of suspected asylum seekers makes its way there.

Detainees must be kept separate during initial screening but this is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve in two other small sites on the island.

This presents a political dilemma for the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, who has said previously that the centre was a Howard government relic “inherited” by the Rudd Government and kept as a contingency measure.

Yesterday Senator Evans said the facility would be used when numbers necessitated it. Departmental and ministerial spokesmen declined to say if the minister had been issued new advice on when to use the centre.

“The new Christmas Island detention centre will be used when numbers of unauthorised boat arrivals require its use,” Senator Evans said.

People are currently held at two sites on the island. A construction camp, originally set up for workers building the new detention centre, could hold up to 246 people, the Department of Immigration said.

Once health checks are done and intentions to claim asylum are established, detainees are moved to Phosphate Hill for identity and security checks. The older and smaller detention centre there could hold 100 people – or 200 people in a short-term surge, a departmental spokesman said.

The most recent boat found off the coast of Broome on Sunday will bring the total detainee population on the island to 139. Yesterday there were 92 people held there, including four people who had been on the island since December last year. Some of the most recent arrivals had been prosecuted or moved.

Yesterday the Government fended off claims the abolition of temporary visas had emboldened people smugglers. “People smuggling is not determined by domestic policies,” Senator Evans said. “Ongoing conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have seen thousands of displaced people seeking refuge in safe countries like Australia.”

The numbers of people seeking asylum are up in all industrialised countries, according to UNHCR's latest statistical report. In the first half of this year, there was a 3 per cent rise in asylum claims lodged in 44 industrialised countries compared with the same period last year. In 2007 new claims rose by 9 per cent compared with 2006.

A 31-year-old Indonesian man, Man Pombili, is in custody after appearing in a Perth court on people smuggling charges. The alleged captain of a boat found off Ashmore Reef last month faces a maximum of 20 years in jail.