On Christmas Island

21 Mar
Topographic map in French of Christmas Island ...

Christmas Island

Imagine what it’s like living on Christmas Island right now.

In a matter of days, the picturesque tropical island community has gone from a peaceful piece of paradise where nobody bothered much about locking their cars and doors, to a place where police are advising locals to lock their houses and make sure they take the keys out of the ignition.

Some Christmas Island residents are afraid of the 10 – 20 asylum seekers who are unaccounted for after the days of riots at the Detention Centre. Others are disturbed by the situation, but aren’t as concerned for their personal safety.

Locals have been warning the government that trouble was ahead for months, after the crowded Detention Centre continued to accept new boat arrivals. The Centre now houses some three times more asylum seekers than it was designed to contain.

Christmas Island residents called on the government to reduce the numbers before things went pear-shaped. They wrote letters predicting riots. They’ve been trying to get the government to listen to them for nearly two years.

All to no avail.

In a tribute to the Australian spirit of the fair go, many members of the Christmas Island community express on-going support and sympathy for asylum seekers. This was particularly apparent last December with the tragic boat sinking and loss of life on the island’s coast, when locals tied to drag asylum seekers out of the water, and had to watch as many, including children and babies, were lost.

Hatred and antipathy towards asylum seekers really does seem to originate in places where nobody’s ever seen one, bearing out the belief that once we see the human face of the refugee, we are less likely to have sneering rejection as our default position.

Listening to Christmas Island locals, it’s clear many of them blame the government, not the asylum seekers. They understand the stupidity of over crowding young men, giving them nothing to do with their days, and keeping them in indefinite uncertainty about their future.

This is what the Howard government did at Woomera Detention Centre and look what happened. Riots, water cannon, self harm, even by children, and a legacy of post traumatic stress for detainees and many of the staff who worked there.

They did it at Baxter Detention Centre and look what happened. Exactly the same, without the water cannon.

Now at Christmas Island we’re using tear gas and something called “bean bag” bullets. “Bean bag” bullets? Is that a cuddly name designed to make them sound better?

This Labor government has learned nothing from the consequences of the Howard government’s policies. They’ve gone right ahead and done exactly the same things in their management of Detention Centres.

Nobody wins. Not the asylum seekers, not the residents of Christmas Island, not the workers at the centres, nobody. Especially not the government because  everybody gets to see how incapable they are of handling what should not be such a challenging situation if approached with a bit of common sense.

Perhaps those shock jocks like Chris Smith,of the guess how many dead asylum seekers fame get a retributory thrill, and the perhaps the voters who’ve never met a refugee but despise them anyway and want them anywhere but here, even at the bottom of the sea, feel gratified.

And of course the Opposition’s Scott Morrison has more ammunition, because that’s all refugees are to him.

On Christmas Island, locals who helped as best they could when the boat sank and the people drowned, are working hard to keep their lives and their children’s lives as normal as possible in the circumstances. There’ll be some of them who’ll be left traumatised by what they’ve seen on their island home. Their tourism figures are probably going to drop as well.

But do Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen give a stuff about any of this?

It’s an island, Gillard says. There’s nowhere for escaped asylum seekers to go.

Well, hello, PM – there’s actually a community on that island. It isn’t terra nullius.

Local resident Patsy Pine broke down in tears when interviewed. ‘The government doesn’t give a damn about us.” she said.

And who can argue with that sentiment?

6 Responses to “On Christmas Island”

  1. gerard oosterman March 21, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    With the footage on TV of tear gas and ‘soft’ bullets tracing through the night sky aimed at the rioting Christmas Island boatpeople by armed police force from the back of trucks, one wonders how long it will be before we will finally admit that the present way of handling and treating boat people is not working, and that our detention or care for those unfortunate people with families is cruel in the extreme. Don’t we care, is that why we now shoot them? For how much longer will the UN commissioner point out our failures?

    The overcrowding, the isolation and the length it takes to process the claims are given as the main cause for the riots.
    Of course dealing with people landing on our shores has often been accompanied by riots. Back in 1952 it took 200 soldiers to restore order at Bonegilla Migrant camp. Three young men had committed suicide. The reasons for the riot then were the same as the present discontent today: overcrowding and inhumane living condition.

    The Nissan hut migrant camps have long disappeared.., only to be replaced with a more modern variety, but with still the same aim: to provide housing but also to isolate and to keep detainees separate, away from ‘normality and if possible from scrutiny. While violence and riots are not tolerable, neither are keeping people detained who have done nothing unlawful.

    Rest assured though that TV footage of the shootings has raced around the world and that our treatment of detainees would have sunk a notch lower, if that was still possible. The tension amongst the asylum seekers is never far from the surface. Mix that in with isolation, the despair of endless waiting for progress about their claims, the utter boredom, heat and cold, the sheer deliberate forbiddingness of surroundings, jail like architecture, fences, guards and you have created very tortuous conditions that no one could possibly accept as normality.

    The response by our Immigration Minister Chris Bowen must be very encouraging to the detainees when he stated that the fire arms used were a bit like shooting ’mini bean bag pellets’ coming from ’gun-like weapons’. They might cause a bit of bruising, he added sheepishly.

    However, David Manne of the Refugee Legal Centre said police had used a modified shotgun’ that can cause serious injury or death’. http://www.watoday.com.au/national/concern-at-use-of-firearms-on-island-20110316-1bxar.html
    With just a few thousand trickling in per year, we can hardly claim to be overwhelmed by boatpeople and as we have some experience in settling migrants for some decades it is indeed surprising the whole issue has became so unmanageable.

    What is the problem and why can’t we settle them in normal circumstances in assessing their status? I mean, Australia is an Island and after harrowing and hazardous boat journeys, they are hardly likely to jump on a boat again and escape. Escape from what? What Governmental stupidity and obstinacy prevents them to not just do what most countries are doing and simply having them living amongst other people, letting them work, earn money, go shopping and process their applications. European countries are coping with thousands of refugees on a daily basis. We have trouble with a few thousand a year, spend hundreds of millions to keep them detained and separated from a functioning society. Why?

    How often does the UNHCR have to put to Australia that we are in breach of basic Human Rights by keeping them in detention when no crime has been committed?
    Of course, the real reason apart from the ingrained xenophobia by some of political parties’ leaders and the usual ramping up by hysterical coterie of radio and other media flotsam is the risk of losing votes. It’s all about that, isn’t it? Let human suffering continue but not risk upsetting the voters who for years have been indoctrinated with ‘our shores’ are under siege from hordes of ‘illegal queue jumpers’. We mustn’t be seen to take sides of humanity and change course midway, must we?

    Is it still preferable to continue to de-humanize a few thousand boat people than to losing voters and an election?

    Come on Australia. Enough is enough. Our minister for immigration looked genuinely uncomfortable discussing the riots on Christmas Island. It shows he still has heart. Perhaps over half the population still have hearts as well. We can’t shoot boat people just because they happen to have come to our shores and need a leg up from misery and wars.

    They want a leg up from their misery, not being shot at.


  2. PAUL WALTER March 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    Gerard’s post is a strong post and his observation concerning Bowen’s discomfiture had me in mind of Ruddock, another individual destroyed (by himself?) by the bloody consequences of an unresolved contradition.
    There has been a fight at the core of the ALP between pragmatists and those who beleive in principle, logic,”vision” and rationality and Rudd himself was a casualty of it. If you want parallels just look to their response to Gunns. Hardly credible is that, either.
    Or Mulrunji in Queensland, every bit as repulsive in its nakedness and police right acros the country get to continue the some times lethal tasering of people, particularly those obvious souls at the bottom of the heap.
    Labor has appeared to lose its battle for its own soul, there are still twitchings but if that twitching has stopped, we will know for sure that labor has joined the innert corpse of the despicable opportunist coalition lying on the ground next to it.


  3. Steve at the Pub March 22, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    A “Beanbag Bullet” is a slight modification on what has more usually been known as a “Baton Round”. Beanbag is a more accurate term, a linen pouch full of birdshot (hence the name, as it resembles a tiny beanbag). It is fired from a shotgun but at extremely low velocity (a few hundred feet per second).

    It hits quite hard, sort of like giving someone one helluva “dead-arm” punch. Being hit in a muscle with a beanbag bullet has an effect pretty much like all the dead-arm/dead-leg punches you’ve ever received, rolled into the one hit. Result: Usuall a temporary paralysis, with a showpiece bruise for a legacy.

    If you wish to avoid being hit with one, they are easily avoided: Don’t be in a riot.


  4. PAUL WALTER March 23, 2011 at 1:11 am #

    The injury caused by the bean bag shotgun shown of teev the other nght looked a bit nastier than the gentle rap on the knuckles Steve seemed to be indicating. Law enforcement gets its new toys and the fellas get a bit enthusiastic and people start dying even, as news reports from both this country and places like the US showm re the anything but non lethal tasers. Even without the techno, a good officer can do damage of course, as the guy who murdered Mulrunji proved.
    Bowen was on Latteline tonight and continued to look uninpressive when up against a reasonable interviewer. But what struck me was this. In 2007 one of the reasons Howard’s government was removed and Rudds ALP put in, was to ensure that human rights violations in these increasingly americanised, privatised institutions would end and a less GITMO regime introduced to remove some of the stress placed on detainees while they were also processed more quickly.
    Yet these places are still run by people who enable government to stay at arms length from its duty of care obligations. Bowen’s response to the continued delays in security checking by ASIO seemed to be gleeful, as if to say, if you complain we’ll slow it down even more. One day life may dish out some thing hard to smug folk like Bowen and then with some experience of real suffering themselves maybe theyd make better ministers. But it will be too late for the sanity of some of detainees and maybe those responsible will wonder why they were so righteous on the issue in the first place.
    On the other hand, todays polls apparently show the country is finally waking up to Abbott.
    Did Labor have to play hard ball to show they could be tough, in order to outlast Abbott?


  5. PAUL WALTER March 30, 2011 at 2:45 am #

    Sad to read of the nineteen year old lad by himself suiciding in a fit of despair at Curtin. Why make it so unpleasant for these people?
    Would people like their own treated like this? They arent what you’d normally think of as criminals, so why the rough stuff, as to psychological abuse?
    Not much perception or compassion in it and the conditions must be suffocating to produce a steady stream of suicides and violence within “da big house”.


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