The Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allen Asher, has said that the Australian immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island are “overloaded”. In a report published at the start of February, he praised the efforts of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in dealing with the numbers of people in their care but stated that there are simply too many people now being processed on the island.
Part of the Australian territories, Christmas Island has played host to government immigration facilities since 2001 and has acted as a stage for politically-charged policies which seek to deter refugees from claiming sanctuary in Australia. 4000 islands which form part of Australia’s territory have been excised from the Australian Migration Zone. This means that refugees cannot apply for asylum on these islands in the same way as they would be able to on the mainland. Amnesty International had this to say:
“On Christmas Island there is no time limit for the processing of refugee claims unlike on the mainland where processing must take place within 90 days of application. Amnesty International Australia believes that all asylum seekers claiming protection should have the same rights, regardless of whether they arrived by plane or boat.”
The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) is located at North West Point, about 17 kilometres from the main settlement on Christmas Island. The Christmas Island IDC has a regular use capacity of 400 adults. Recently the contingency capacity has been increased to 688 giving a total capacity of 1088.
The Phosphate Hill temporary immigration detention facility was opened in 2001 and is located about 5 kilometres from the settled areas of Christmas Island. The area has capacity for up to approximately 192 people depending on family composition.
A separate fenced area around the Bravo compound is available, if required, to accommodate up to 48 adults. Located adjacent to the Phosphate Hill facility, the Construction Camp has demountable style accommodation and has an operational capacity of 200.
The department has a number of properties in the Christmas Island community that can be used flexibly for Community Detention or for staff accommodation depending on operational requirements. The Community Detention units are located at the Drumsite and can accommodate up to 44 persons.
This capacity has now been exceeded and resources are stretched. The Ombusman Allen Asher explains:
“In October 2008 there were only 31 people in detention. In June 2010, 2454 people were detained on Christmas Island, including 270 children. By 1 September 2010, this had further increased to 2603, significantly exceeding the detention capacity by more than 500 people.
“…with the increasing number of detainees, tremendous pressure remains on the facilities and resources available at the Christmas Island detention facilities. Our office continues to receive complaints about a variety of issues, including processing delays and detention times, and the lack of services and facilities. We have recommended the expedition of movement of detainees to the Australian mainland so as to address overcrowding, as well as the need to address the shortage of facilities and services, in particular mental health services.
“Based on observations during the past two years, Ombudsman considers that the Department has on the whole managed the operation as well or better than could be expected. However, the Ombudsman considers that the stage has been reached where the current scale of operations on Christmas Island is not sustainable.
“Whether the solution is to make use of facilities on the Australian mainland is a policy decision for Government to make. However, the Ombudsman is concerned that attempting to manage more facilities by utilising the existing level of resources in geographically diverse areas potentially brings with it other problems not least of which is ensuring the presence of adequate infrastructure and mental health services.”