Boat Influx Opens Howard’s ‘White Elephant’

Boat influx opens Howard's 'white elephant'

Jewel Topsfield
The Age
December 19, 2008

THE Rudd Government has been forced to open the $400 million detention centre on Christmas Island in an embarrassing admission it is struggling to cope with an influx of boat people.

– Struggle to cope with boat people
– Christmas Island detention centre opened
– Labor caves, despite previous opposition

Immigration Minister Chris Evans has previously resisted pressure to open the centre despite a steadily increasing number of arrivals, saying the 800-bed facility had been “inherited” from the Howard Government and was not suitable for children and families.

Government MP Michael Danby, the head of a parliamentary delegation that visited the centre this year, said it resembled a stalag and was a “grandiose” waste of public money. “It looks like an enormous white elephant,” he said at the time.

But the Immigration Department will today announce the latest boatload of 37 suspected asylum seekers, intercepted 200 kilometres north-east of Darwin on Tuesday, will be housed in the new centre. The 37 men are expected to arrive at Christmas Island over the weekend.

There are already 135 Afghan, Iranian and Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the island, but they live in a construction camp, the old detention centre at Phosphate Hill, or in the community.

Seven boats have been intercepted in the past three months, with 164 suspected asylum seekers caught trying to enter Australia this year, up from 148 last year.

The Rudd Government has come under intense pressure over its border protection scheme, with the Opposition claiming the scrapping of temporary protection visas has made Australia a “soft target” for people smugglers.

The Age understands the Government was extremely reluctant to open the centre, because it sends a message it is losing the battle against people smugglers and validates the Howard Government's decision to build it.

Asked at a Senate committee hearing in May how many people it would take before it was opened, Senator Evans said: “It depends on what other options you have.”

In October he said the “common view” was that the construction camp, which had a range of communal facilities and “a bit more of a community feel”, was a “better alternative”.

In a statement to be released today, the Immigration Department says: “The Government's policy is to open the new facility when numbers and separation arrangements required it.”

But it says no women, children, or families will live in the new centre, consistent with the Government's policy, which prohibits children from being locked up in detention. It costs taxpayers $32 million a year to accommodate up to 30 detainees at the new centre.

In August, refugee advocates who toured the new centre said it was “extremely harsh” with a “high-security, prison-like character”.

Amnesty International and seven other groups wrote to Senator Evans at the time, saying “the very expensive security systems of the facility are quite unnecessary”.

“The damage that has been done to people's mental and physical health by detaining them in remote, high-security detention centres such as this has been documented repeatedly,” they said.