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The visitors file through the entrance gates of Australia's Alcatraz Detention Centre on Christmas Island
Lock the Gates! People queuing up to enter through the front gates. Super-steel, super-heavy, super-secure, this photo exemplifies that the Christmas Island detention centre is indeed our Down-Under Alcatraz.

Welcome to our Island Gulag, says Immigration

Government Inquiry into Detention opens Christmas Island

Indeed, Australia has changed now that John Howard is no longer here as its Prime Minister.

In an unprecedented move, the Immigration Department, as the Joint Standing Committee on Migration's Inquiry into immigration detention in Australia is underway, cranked up its PR machine.

Immigration invited more than 50 community representatives, working with NGO's who work with asylum seekers and refugees, to "inspect" Australia's Island Gulag on Christmas Island, a facility recently declared ready for operations.

The National Jet charter flight took off - and returned - from Perth Airport on Wednesday August 13, 2008, and carried the delegation to the island, 2600 kms north of Western Australia's capital, after a short refuelling stop in Exmouth. Based on a ticketed price of $2200 for a scheduled return flight to the island in 2005, the chartered flight would have cost an estimated minimum of at least $250,000.

Amongst the guests were Graham Thom (Amnesty International), UNHCR Regional Representative Ric Towle, Paul Power (Refugee Council of Australia), Pamela Curr (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre), Aileen Crowe (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Sydney), Ramdas Sankaren (Ethnic Communities' Council of WA), several PhD students, advocates and resettlement agency representatives.

While the general flyer sent to the invited guests stated 'no photographs in detention centres', they were told on arrival that taking pictures was fine and we received more than 50 images from one of the many invited guests. Here they are, together with the reaction of some of the NGO representatives who were invited to the trip.

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Following the visit, several organisations endorsed a letter sent to the Immigration Minister Chris Evans, condemning the detention centre. Below is the letter, followed by some media reports following the Immigration Department initiative.

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Senator Chris Evans
Minister for Immigration and Citizenship
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Joint letter re Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre

Dear Minister,

Representatives of the organisations listed below visited Christmas Island this week to inspect the facilities for detaining and processing unauthorised arrivals. We appreciate the invitation and assistance of the Australian Government and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to undertake the visit and offer the following observations.

The new immigration detention facility

The most striking experience of the visit was the high security, prison-like character of the new immigration detention facility. It is an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum while their applications for protection are determined. The very expensive security systems of the facility are quite unnecessary for the population who may be detained there. There were many better uses for the $400 million the facility cost and the additional millions required for its upkeep even while empty.

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 and is acknowledged by the government's new immigration detention policy.

Alternative detention arrangements

We inspected alternative detention arrangements including duplexes situated in the community and the previous Phosphate Hill detention facility which has recently had a number of the fences removed. We welcome your announcement that people are brought to the island would be placed in these facilities rather than the detention centre, which would only be used as a last resort.

The remoteness of Christmas Island

The journey to Christmas Island, a five hour flight from Perth, reinforced for us its remoteness from the providers of services that are so important to ensuring the wellbeing of asylum seekers and the protection of their rights.

Access to specialist services and casework support, including torture trauma counselling and expert legal advice will be restricted if not impossible.


The immigration facilities including the vastly expensive centre are a product of the policy of excision.

Our visit underscored for us how unfair and potentially harmful the policy is, despite some ameliorative measures announced by you as part of the new detention policy.

We strongly affirm our view that all asylum seekers should be entitled to have their applications for protection determined under the procedures that apply on the mainland. There should be no discrimination on the basis of the way asylum seekers reach Australian territory. In this way Australia will be best placed to ensure that those in need of protection are not returned to countries where they would face torture or death.

Yours sincerely,

A Just Australia
Amnesty International Australia
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
Asylum Seekers Centre of NSW
Foundation House (Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture)
Immigration Advice and Rights Centre
Jesuit Refugee Service Australia
Refugee Council of Australia

Previously published by Crikey

Amnesty says new detention centre 'extremely harsh'

The Age
August 16, 2008 - 3:25PM

Refugee advocates who have toured Australia's new immigration detention centre on Christmas Island say it is "extremely harsh" and unsuitable.

The federal government recently softened immigration laws so that fewer asylum seekers will be detained, and people will be detained for less time.

But boat people will still be detained on Christmas Island - and refugee groups have slammed the $400 million detention centre's "high security, prison-like character".

Amnesty International and seven other groups have written to Immigration Minister Chris Evans after touring the centre this week.

"It is an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum while their applications for protection are determined," the letter said.

"The very expensive security systems of the facility are quite unnecessary for the population who may be detained there."

"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."

The letter, signed by groups including the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, called for all asylum seekers to have their applications dealt with under the procedures that apply on the Australian mainland.

Christmas Island is located in the Indian Ocean, more than 2,000km from Perth.

Senator Evans said the new detention centre would continue to be used to house unauthorised boat arrivals - and pointed out it had been built by the previous government.

"The Rudd government inherited the new immigration detention centre on Christmas Island which was designed and built to the previous government's specifications as a maximum security facility," Senator Evans said.

He said the centre could accommodate up to 800 people.

Some fencing had been removed so children and families arriving on the island could live in a "community environment", Senator Evans said.

He defended the government's policy of maintaining a system of mandatory detention and excising certain areas from Australia's migration zone.


Refugee advocates critical of new Christmas Is detention centre

Posted Sat Aug 16, 2008 3:17pm AEST

A group of refugee advocates who have had their first look at the new Christmas Island detention centre say that the facility is completely out of step with the Government's current immigration policy.

They say that the $400 million detention centre has inappropriately high security with heavy fencing including in recreational and educational areas.

The head of Refugee Council of Australia Paul Power says that the facility does not reflect any of the changes that have been made to the Australian immigration policy in recent years.

"It's just really sad and appalling that at some point someone in government didn't put a hold on the project or consider much more substantial changes to the centre than actually really did occur," he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans says that security is a necessary component of any detention facility.

"We inherited the Christmas Island facility, but it's a necessary part of our detention regime, and will be used if required."

Senator Evans says that the key is make sure that refugee applications are processed quickly.

"Long term detention is opposed by this Government, and we want to make sure it doesn't occur," he said

"But equally we want to make sure that people don't arrive unlawfully in Australia. And you've got to have the regime that sends the message that they shouldn't come unlawfully to this country."

Christmas Island looks and feels like a prison

Published on 14/08/2008
by: Graham Thom

This blog entry was created by KimB and does not necessarily represent the position or opinion of Amnesty International Australia.

Our refugee coordinator Graham Thom, along with our national director Claire Mallinson and board vice president Jim Sharp, has just visited the new Christmas Island detention centre. These are their observations.

There are a few things that strike you about Christmas Island and its new detention centre. Firstly, the island's remoteness from the Australian mainland, and the logistical difficulties in getting there, are brought home when you depart Perth's international airport, passport in hand.

You have to complete an immigration departure card, despite the fact you are flying to an Australian territory ('excised' of course), before embarking on a five hour flight to the island.

This week, on 13 August, Amnesty International Australia joined a number of other NGOs, UNHCR, HREOC and the Ombudsman's office on a visit to the newly completed Christmas Island detention centre. The visit was organised by the Department of Immigration.

Harsh and soulless

Once on the island you are struck by not only the remoteness of the new centre to anything else on the island but also the high level of security surrounding the centre. (Where would anyone escape to?) Two high fences, the second one an electric fence, circle the perimeter. Despite landscaping in the "green heart" of the centre there is an all pervasive feeling of concrete and steel, particularly in the accommodation compounds.

Despite recent efforts to improve the feel of the centre you cannot escape the sense you are in a medium security prison. The level of fencing and surveillance make even the recreational areas, including sewing room and beauty saloon, feel like you are in an expensive cage. In the accommodation rooms the small windows are covered by steel mesh that obscure the view to the nearby fence and then the larger electric fence beyond that.

Most confronting of all is the arrivals area, the "at risk" area and the high security "red one" compound. It is difficult to imagine how traumatised asylum seekers would react when first brought into the centre. This arrivals area at best can be described as harsh and soulless, but at worst, for someone who has previously suffered torture or trauma in their homeland, it would be anywhere from intimidating to frightening. Even the light fittings are surrounded by cages.

The "at risk" rooms are part of the modern medical facility. These are rooms where people who it is believed could potentially self harm can be monitored. The rooms themselves again demonstrate the priority of security over individual well being. This is reinforced when you go out to the adjacent open small caged area, designed to let those in the at risk area go "outside". How it is envisaged that people suffering mental health concerns will improve in these conditions, rather than go into serious decline, is difficult to comprehend.

The "red compound" where those who pose a security concern, or behave violently, is also very confronting. Again, the thought of anyone's "behavior" improving in such a maximum security environment is difficult to imagine.

Long way from the vision

Amnesty International Australia has consistently raised concerns about detaining people in remote locations, particularly in dehumanising environments. The damage this has done to the detainee's mental and physical health has been documented time and time again. The high security nature of the new centre is clearly reflective of previous detention philosophies and we believe is a long way from the current vision of a more humane approach to detention outlined recently by the Minister.

While on Christmas Island we were also shown some of the other alternative detention arrangements available for use on the island, including duplexes situated in the community and the previous phosphate hill facility which has recently had a number of the fences removed. This would enable any future detainees to come and go from the facility during the day.

While the remaining fenced in areas still feel confronting the rest of the basic cabins in the centre makes it feel like an old school camp ground. It is envisaged that if people are brought to the island these facilities would be used in preference to the new $400 million centre, which would only be used as a last resort.

The clearly more humane approach that is being taken with other detention alternatives on the island again brings in to stark contrast the absurdity of building such a harsh, high tech, high security facility like the one that has just been completed. The resources within the new centre, computers, sports equipment, sewing machines and the cost of maintaining them while the centre remains empty is a situation that can best be described as extraordinary.

Flying back to the Australian mainland, passing the duty free before again clearing customs, it is difficult to image a more remote part of Australia to build a high security detention facility. Maybe that was the point seven years ago, it is now time for the current government to abandon that approach and treat all those who are fleeing to this country in search of safety with the same level of dignity and respect as everybody else.

Photos of the visit

Photos 32 through to 36 were taken in the area designated by the architect and stipulated in the builders' plans as the area for babies and small children, including a nursing and nappy changing area.

Click on the thumbnails to open the large version of the images; they will open in a new window.

Your vehicle will be searched
Wire grills
Wire grills
Internal access road
Internal access road
One of the compounds
Top view of delegates' bus in sluice
Fence door lock (detail)
Control Room
Control Room showing CCTV screens
Electrified fence on roof
Office entrance
Vehicle access sluice
Vehicle access sluice
Electrified fence
Electrified fence
Equipment cage
Relaxation area in Red One
Isolation room in Red One
View through compounds
Cages within cages
Meshed windows
Breakout area for 'detainee relaxation'
One of the compounds
Caged ceiling lights
Meshed wall
Intake area for new arrivals
Room ID number
32. See 'child detention' paragraph above
33. See 'child detention' paragraph above
34. See 'child detention' paragraph above
35. See 'child detention' paragraph above
36. See 'child detention' paragraph above
Tennis court, steel game net, doubling as evacuation assembly area
Education area
Compound 'Green'
Recreation and Education area
'The Green heart'
Tennis court, evacuation area
Area with toilets and public phone
Caged-in gym and exercise area
Outlook from compound
Entrance to 'Education One'
Entry Gate checkpoint
Cell Door showing deadlock and infra-red swipe slot
Caged loud speaker
Outook from 2nd floor
Double bunk bed
Stainless steel bathroom
Stainless steel wash basin
View from inside
'Gold' compound
'Gold' compound