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A boatload of new arrivals gets lifted on to the Christmas Island harbour jetty
It's a bizarre 'ceremony' that marks the start of events on Christmas Island for a boatload of new arrivals: due to the massive tides in the tropics in the Northwest of Western Australia, the entire Customs vessel gets lifted from the water so passengers can disembark. (click for large version)

It's getting crowded on Christmas Island...

Slowly Christmas Island is filling up with refugees - but in August 2009 it seemed that senior and high-profile advocates all flocked to the place...

Australia's National Human Rights Consultation Chief Frank Brennan flew to Christmas Island in August.

Professor Louise Newman, as part of the Detention Health Monitoring Group, visited. Then, Sydney Morning Herald reporter David Marr went for a week, before his essay in the September Monthly appeared.

What's on this page?

This page combines a summary article written following media publications of the visits by some high-profile advocates to Christmas Island in August 2009, and includes the audio material of the presentation by David Marr at a community forum in Perth following his visit, as well as media responses to his essay in The Monthly of September 2009.


23 August 2009: Growing Christmas Island Troubles - It started all so subtle, and immediately after the November 2007 Federal election. But while the Inquiry into Detention condemned the caged walkways, perspex barriers and electrified fencing, how disappointing was the reply to the report by the Immigration Minister, who almost wholeheartedly dismissed the bipartisan recommendations.

Other pages by David Marr:

2 June 2007: David Marr: Careful, he might hear you - John Howard has ... cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced NGOs, censored the arts, prosecuted leakers, criminalised protest and curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, and this has happened because we let it happen.

27 August 2005: Don't ask too many questions: the story of DIMIA's cover-up of the Vivian Alvarez affair - this is a copy of a 2-part article from the Sydney Morning Herald, written by investigative reporter David Marr: "The lies that kept Vivian Alvarez hidden for years" and "The cover-up comes unstuck".

20 July 2005: David Marr and The Palmer Report - The Palmer Report, or the report of the Inquiry into the circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau, is damning. And so is David Marrr's analysis from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Ruddock goes to Canberra14 April 2005: Geneva versus Canberra: Australia in the dock at the UN - The UN has again attacked the Howard Government's record on race, but this time the politicians are shutting up and news of the verdict isn't getting out. Back in 2000, the UN was unimpressed - and that's the Geneva problem in a nutshell: what works in Canberra doesn't work in in this town. The Howard Government message carries no particular clout. The power of jobs and patronage, so persuasive back home, has no impact in Geneva.

29 September 2004: The Shape of the Argument: The 3rd Overland Lecture - David Marr delivers the lecture: "After nearly a decade of sustained bullying from government [...] the media is in a quandary, has lost its edge. Not everyone, not everywhere. But it has happened. What I am exploring here is how that loss of confidence has come to shape public debate..."

27 May 2003: The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia - The Colin Simpson Lecture in the Redfern Town Hall. "I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost - but not quite - to where we were."

Australia's Own Fully Funded Tropical Island Theatre Works

Jack H Smit
September 1, 2009

In a few days the new edition of The Monthly will hit the stalls, kiosks and bookshops, and in this September edition Sydney Morning Herald social and legal issues writer David Marr will define with 9,000 words his position about what we're doing on Christmas Island in terms of our treatment of asylum seekers who came 'uninvited and by boat'.

David Marr's recent visit to the Gulag Island - crowning achievement of Howard's exclusion zone to serve those who arrive on our shores to seek asylum - almost coincided with a visit by Jesuit Priest Frank Brennan, who has been heading Australia's National Human Rights Consultation for most of the year, and another visit by Newcastle University's Child Psychiatry Professor Dr Louise Newman, who until last year headed the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

It's well known that we're spending many hundreds of millions of dollars on a few souls who have enough initiative to sail to Australia in the hope they can start a life without arrests, torture, imprisonment, and live without the threat of being murdered - a life they seek in accordance with their international rights as determined by the UN Refugee Convention. A few souls, because while the papers report that last year 232,598 permanent migrants and 657,124 temporary workers arrived, since the November 2007 federal election - according to The Age - a mere 1,051 people arrived by boat to become the recipients of Australia's "special treatment" by being quarantined, locked up and guarded around the clock on a remote island 2300 kms away from Perth.

Recently Dennis O'Brien, the Chief Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, tried to tell a Sydney audience that Australia does not lock up asylum seeker children on Christmas Island, but he was gracefully corrected in his illusion by some senior advocates, who suggested that he might consider that he lives in a parallel universe held together by spin emanating from the Immigration Department: no child on Christmas Island can run down the street or wander around on the island without a guard or another 'designated person' being in complete control of any movement.

If you think that the misery of detention cruelties ended with the demise of John Howard, think again. Even as the Joint Standing Committee on Migration delivered its third and final report to Parliament a few weeks ago, there is still a need for a dissenting report by the indomitable member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, who notes about kids in detention:

"...I expressed my concern about a new tolerance of the detention of children in facilities euphemistically described as "alternative" or "family-style" facilities. A tolerance apparent in the government, the Department of Immigration, and reflected in this Committee's reports is blurring the distinction that had formerly divided incarceration from being able to live freely in the community for children in immigration detention."(p 158, 1.14)


"...a fundamental flaw of the report is its failure to provide detailed, factual descriptions of the security infrastructure in operation at any immigration detention facility..."( p 158, 1.16)

Even while Georgiou dissented on these vital points around detention of kids, the Committee recommended in its main report as AAP reporters told us:

"...that all caged walkways, perspex barriers and electrified fencing be removed from the North West Point immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, and that barbed wire fencing be removed from all immigration detention centres."

They may well say that - and this is of course coming from the bipartisan Standing Committee's National Inquiry work over more than 16 months, but Immigration Minister Chris Evans wasn't having any of it, and dismissed their recommendations bluntly. As quoted by AAP:

"The Christmas Island detention centre was built as a high security facility by the previous government at a cost of $400 million and to make significant alterations now would be financially unfeasible."

In the same media report Evans goes on to re-coin the phrase "illegal arrivals". We thought the Rudd government had finally given up on its use of the term 'illegal' when talking about boat arrivals. How wrong we were!

Frank Brennan, who is of course always well-mannered, in an opinion piece in The Age following his visit to the island, carefully but nonetheless succinctly points to some developing troubles of long-term detention. Even while Chris Evans' new policy principles of detention - no need for detention after health, identity and security checks - were announced more than a year ago, the old detention paradigms seem to be maintained:

"...some people are in detention for nine months and more. It strains the definitions to claim that the detention of someone for up to nine months is primarily related to health, identity and security issues. According to the policy, adult single males whose identities are established and who are known not to be a health or security risk should be released into the community either on the island or on the mainland. The policy risks morphing into detention for the course of processing."

Once again, the contradictory language between Chris Evans' announcement of seven principles at Australian National University last year, and his complete and utter failure to fall in line with most UN Convention countries - and issue bridging visas so those who have completed these initial health, identity and security checks will move off the island and can start settling - shows that although the rhetoric is different than during the Howard years, decisions by the Rudd government are still gripped with fear to take the issue of unannounced boat arrivals out of the political context and move them into an unpolluted, decent and humanitarian policy chapter, where social justice norms and values reside.

Like Georgiou, who highlights what we do to kids on the island, Brennan returns from his visit with some serious concerns:

"Minors in community detention on Christmas Island do not have any independent legal guardian appointed for them, which means fly-in legal advisers cannot be adequately instructed. Many minors in community detention were with a trusted adult relative on the boat. There is little contact possible once that relative is held in detention 23 kilometres out of town. The relative is never allowed out, and the minor has little opportunity to visit."

While Louise Newman is still writing her report, she comments in The Age:

"Christmas Island is clearly remote and there are significant challenges in providing for the mental health needs of these people, particularly unaccompanied young people..."

Speaking at a fundraiser for CARAD / CASE for Refugees in Perth on Monday August 31, David Marr allowed us a peek into his upcoming article for The Monthly. Marr argued that Christmas Island is our own Extravagant Australian Piece of Theatre, together with the Border Protection measures, a massively expensive farce to convince Australians that everything, our 'border control' and our dealing with what a significant percentage of the electorate still regards as 'invaders' who really should be sent back, is fully under control.

I think it was Anne Deveson who once described Australian Social Policy as a tango with Three Steps Forward, Four Steps Back. I think it comes from the same fragility of national identity, that Christmas Island remains a grossly exorbitant and disgustingly expensive example of - as phrased by long-standing Migration Agent and the 2003 Human Rights Medal winner Marion Le OAM - the curious ambivalence of Australian refugee policy.

David Marr

Community Forum: Out of The Dark

Hosted by CARAD and CASE for Refugees:

A Public Forum with David Marr

Who Shapes Our Fears?

The role governments, oppositions and the press play in alarming Australians about refugee boats

31 August 2009, 6:30pm
Christchurch Grammar school Centre for Ethics
Queenslea Drive, Claremont WA

Renowned author and journalist David Marr speaks at a combined CARAD and CASE for Refugees function. His address is titled 'Who Shapes Our Fears: the role of governments, oppositions and the press play in alarming Australians about refugee boats'.

David Marr, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, has broadcast for the ABC, edited the National Times and written biographies of Patrick White and the disgraced chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick. In 2003 he published, with his colleague Marian Wilkinson, "Dark Victory" an account of John Howard's battle against refugee boats that began with the blocking of the Tampa during the election campaign of 2001. After presenting Media Watch for three years, he returned to Fairfax and continues to write about refugees.

Audio: David Marr in Perth

David Marr's presentation

Click on the right-hand arrow to open and play the audio file

Click on this image to open the WinMedia audio Clip

Audience Questions to David Marr

Click on the right-hand arrow to open and play the audio file

Click on this image to open the WinMedia audio Clip

David Marr: The Indian Ocean Solution

The Monthly Essays
September 2009, No. 49
by David Marr

(preview only)

In a tin shed on Phosphate Hill, a brisk woman from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship sits facing a slight kid of 17. Though Ali Jaffari knows something of what is coming, he is battling nerves. His face is grey. One leg is trembling. His father, Sharif, sits quietly beside him, his head bowed. An air-conditioner thunders in the background. Both men keep an eye on the envelopes the DIAC officer has on the table: brown envelopes that hold the answer to the rest of their lives.

The Jaffaris are Hazaras from Afghanistan, a people long persecuted as Shia Muslims in a country overwhelmingly Sunni. Sharif was still a boy when he fled the country to grow up in the large Hazara community in Iran. At some point, he moved to Pakistan and raised a family in Quetta. But as inter-faith violence intensified in Pakistan over the last year, the city became dangerous. Sharif talks of more than 60 Hazaras murdered in the city. The Jaffaris narrowly escaped death. "Two persons came by motorcycle. They stopped. They fired on us and they escaped." It was time to leave. "There were rumours Australia accepted refugees and it's a safe and secure country. So therefore we decided to come to Australia. That was our plan."

Their arrival on Christmas Island in early May, along with another 185 refugees collected by HMAS Tobruk, provoked fresh denunciations by the Opposition of Labor's 'soft' response to boat people. "There cannot be any serious argument about it now," said Malcolm Turnbull. "It has failed to stop the dreadful business of people smuggling." Hate was back in the air. The press noted the biggest spike in "unauthorised boat arrivals" since the heyday of the Pacific Solution in 2001. The island was said to be reaching bursting point. As always, Christmas Islanders gathered to watch the refugees brought ashore. It's a spectacle that predates the Tampa affair by a decade. But things have changed: the islanders were no longer held back by police barricades, and there were no guards in riot gear on the barges.

Flying Fish Cove lies under cliffs covered by dark forests. Jurassic birds wheel overhead. The dusty hulk of the phosphate loader waits for ships. Along the shore are barracks, warehouses and a little mosque. This was not where the Jaffaris expected to find themselves. That all boat people heading for Australia are now held on Christmas Island came as a complete surprise. "No one told us." They hadn't heard of attempts by Labor and Coalition governments over nearly two decades to deter people like them from coming here by boat. The messages had fallen on deaf ears. The Jaffaris paid a smuggler to bring them to this country because, where they come from, Australia has a vague reputation for decency.

As Ali was only 17, father and son were not taken to the high-security immigration detention centre at North West Point but to the old Construction Camp on Phosphate Hill above the town. The immigration minister, Chris Evans, says Labor converted the facilities here to give children and families a "community environment". It's a grim fib. A high fence was torn down, but what's left is a cluster of tin boxes and concrete walkways surrounded by gravel. Workers building roads in the bush sleep in dongas like these and are well paid for their discomfort. But on Phosphate Hill families sit behind closed doors day after day with air-conditioners working away. There is little privacy. Heavy rain turns the camp into a mosquito-ridden swamp. Although the guards have gone from the gates, no one is free to leave without an escort. "It's not a community," said an islander who knows the place intimately. "It's a shithole."

Under John Howard, boat people were held in detention for years as a harsh warning to those who might follow in their wake. Labor has dramatically sped things up. The Jaffaris have waited only two months and twelve days for this encounter in the rec room with the woman from DIAC.

Her news is all good and delivered swiftly: "The paperwork has gone very quickly and I'm pleased to let you know that the minister has granted you a protection visa." Ali sags a little and thanks her quietly. The father nods. In real life, victories aren't marked by shouts and high fives, but relief that mimics exhaustion. She slips documents from the envelopes for them to sign. Ali asks that word be sent to a friend he made on the boat who is being held at North West Point. Ali wants to say goodbye. "I only know his name as Said." Promises are made. (And kept.) There follows a last, bizarre interrogation. It's so pointless it's almost insulting, yet it's proof the Jaffaris have now achieved the privileged status of ordinary travellers.

"Are you," asks the woman from DIAC, "carrying goods that may be prohibited or subject to restriction such as medicines, steroids, firearms, weapons of any kind?" Ali and his father confer. "No, we don't have any." Nor do they have $10,000 or its equivalent in foreign currency. Nor any dried, fresh, preserved, cooked or uncooked food. The translator labours away and the woman from DIAC crosses each box in their entry cards. Tomorrow they will be driven to one of the most fickle airports in the world, where a plane will be waiting to take them 2600 kilometres to Perth. The scene is not quite finished. The air-conditioner is turned off and in the silence that fills the shed, Ali thanks those who have looked after them on the island. "We can't consider them as human beings," he says, "but better than human beings, like angels. We are very pleased being treated well and feeling safe and secure here. It can't be described by words."

Island solution expensive, says Evans

Sydney Morning Herald
Yuko Narushima, Immigration Correspondent
September 3, 2009

The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, has conceded everything done to keep asylum seekers on Christmas Island could be done cheaper on the mainland.

"There's no doubt that the cost of supplying labour and materials to Christmas Island makes it more expensive than such an operation on the mainland," Senator Evans tells Herald journalist David Marr in an essay for The Monthly magazine, out tomorrow.

Marr visited the predominantly Buddhist island, interviewing detainees, officials and locals. His cover story, The Indian Ocean Solution, outlines the costs - financial and social - of detaining people on Australia's island outpost and questions the political motives for doing so.

According to Marr, Senator Evans makes no big claims the policy of keeping asylum seekers offshore deters people smuggling. "It offers a message about excision and a strong commitment to ensuring people who seek to come to Australia arrive lawfully," Senator Evans says.

Staff at the $400 million North West Point detention centre receive a food and board allowance of $190 a day, on top of wages, from a private contractor, G4S.

The facility itself was built by the Howard government at roughly 10 times the price of a comparable prison in NSW.

"The budget for reassuring Australians is bottomless," Marr writes. "Evans is trying to implement Labor's immigration values inside John Howard's grim facilities. It's a most uncomfortable mix."

The Rudd Government continues to process people off shore, less as a warning to would-be arrivals and their aides, and more as a comfort to a frightened public, he says.

"Isn't this operation really about reassuring us back home that only the chosen will reach Australia? That boats are under control?" Marr says.

In July last year, Senator Evans announced detention would be a measure of last resort and for the shortest practicable time. However, adding to the challenge of starting fresh with tools of the past were confines laid early by the Prime Minister, Marr says.

In his final days as Opposition Leader in 2007, Kevin Rudd said he would turn back seaworthy boats headed for Australia. As Prime Minister, he called people smugglers "the vilest form of human life" but offered little direct support when his minister came under fire for being soft.

"Within Labor, there are fears of how Rudd might respond if the boats returned in the numbers that tempted Howard to stop the Tampa in 2001. There's a sense that anything then is on the table," Marr says.