Christmas Island made headlines in 2001 when the Norwegian ship MV Tampa attempted to land more than 400 asylum seekers on the Australian territory, an island nestled beneath Indonesia with a resident population of less than 2,000.
For years before and after the island had been a target for so-called “boat people” travelling from Asia to seek asylum, but before long it became synonymous with detention camps for those very people.
When boat people numbers dwindled, Canberra moved to mothball the Serco-run detention facilities. They have recently found fresh purpose, however, in housing hundreds of people being processed for, or appealing, deportation from Australia. Under new legislation, anyone who has been sentenced to more than 12 months’ prison in Australia, whether recently or not, is liable for deportation if they do not hold citizenship – even if they’ve spent almost their entire lives there.
This applies to more than 1000 New Zealanders, many of whom – estimates suggest up to 100 – have been transported the thousands of kilometres west of the Australian mainland to the camp.
Gordon Thomson, sometimes described as the island mayor, is president of the Christmas Island Shire and head of the local workers’ union. He spoke over the phone to The Spinoff this week. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Spinoff: How have New Zealand citizens ended up being held in a detention centre on Christmas Island, some 7,500 kilometres from NZ?
Gordon Thomson: This is a new use of the detention centre that was built specifically to detain asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. That was the purpose for which it was built, the government said at the time. Now that they’ve stopped the boats, they have decided to use it for another purpose. It’s still an immigration purpose, and that’s to deny liberty to people who have committed crimes, done their time, expecting to be released into the community. As they should be after rehabilitation in prison, hopefully. But because they’re a second class citizen – that is they’re not citizens of Australia, but hold permanent residency or in the case of New Zealanders a right to reside and work in Australia – the government changed its policy, changed the law in December last year [to enable the deportation of any non-citizen sentenced to 12 months or longer after they’ve been released].
I think there’s one New Zealander in detention who was actually born in Australia to New Zealand parents and he’s up for deportation.
How do you feel about New Zealanders being held there?
I come at from this point of view: If somebody is born into our community, or is raised in our community, whose life is shaped by our community, whatever they do in our community, however they behave, however they function – we have to take responsibility for the shaping and outcomes of all our people, whether they’re born here or not.
The whole idea of deporting people because they’ve committed crimes, versus not deporting people who are citizens who’ve committed the same crimes, is abhorrent. If you have a right to live in Australia, in my opinion, that says you belong here, and whatever you do, whether you work hard and pay your taxes and never jaywalk and never commit a crime, or whether you work and live here, do commit a crime – you’re a product of your society, and we are all accountable and responsible for that.
We are all responsible for the care and nurturing of everybody that forms our society – we can’t sort of cleanse it from time to time by deportation or exile. That’s a couple of thousand years old, that idea.
Even if you accept the idea of deporting people, what’s the problem with them being able to live with their families or in their communities, pending decisions about any contest they want to make about deportation? What’s the problem with that? The whole idea of administrative detention is a problem.
What kind of a place is the centre?
I would think you or anybody else looking at the place would say it’s a high security prison. Our question has always been: why lock people up who’ve done nothing wrong? No crimes committed: they are refugees, or people seeking asylum whose claims for refugee status, whose claims for asylum, have to be processed. But they should not be held in administrative detention while the claims for asylum are assessed. That’s a position I have on a moral principle.
When you see what we have, a high security prison, where people are locked up, it’s a great concern. When it was being built, my description of it was that this is Australia’s Guantanamo Bay – the decision to build it was 2002, when hysteria around terrorism, the war on terrorism, was announced by George Bush and John Howard. So they created that atmosphere of fear. And in Australia the Howard government exploited the fear, excited racial discrimination and antagonism – Islamophobia, really – reached a peak during that period.
Australia’s Guantanamo Bay, really?
It was a cynical, political act by Howard in so many respects, and the prison that they built here was part of that reaction of the government, to the flow of refugees to Christmas Island. People were wanting to get to Australia for safety, and you can understand that. I have a deep and abiding suspicion and opposition to the Howard government’s policy and practice, and even though I was a Labor Party member I was critical of the Labor Party when they changed their policy in 2013 from the a very sympathetic, compassionate one, to the ‘lock ‘em up’ position for political reasons.
It’s all about what that prison is. What we said about it being Guantanamo Bay, we thought it would be used for political prisoners, if you like, people who’d been marginalised, isolated and administratively convicted of terrorist thoughts, being sent to Christmas Island, as people were rendered to Guantanamo Bay. In a perverse way, we were right. They’ve taken people out of our prison systems who are not citizens and put them on Christmas Island. So it’s effectively – well, it’s proving our point, that it wasn’t just for asylum seekers. It would be a facility that the Government of Australia would have at its disposal to deal with whoever they wanted to deal with.
Why Christmas Island?
The Australian government doesn’t own a lot of territory, a lot of land. It’s mostly states and self-governing territories that control land. So the Australian commonwealth has set up its refugee detention centres mostly on ex-military bases which were Commonwealth property. And of course Christmas Island, which is directly governed from Canberra. So Christmas Island is very much the Australian Government’s real estate, and they see the place as theirs to do with whatever they please. Building the prison here was an option because they don’t have that option on the mainland.
That’s one issue. But the main determinant was that here it’s isolated, and they could use changes in the immigration law to excise Christmas Island and other Australian territories that are islands from the migration zone. And thereby, they thought, deny asylum seekers access to the Australian courts, particularly for judicial review of decisions of the minister of immigration to deny an application for asylum.
What has the impact been on the island and its population?
There have been several impacts. The economic impact of the detention centre on Christmas Islands is it has had benefits for people who have work, it has benefits for shopkeepers and other businesses, which have derived a lot of business from the presence of around 500-600 people brought to the island to work at the detention centre. So you had a whole lot of people here with a whole lot of paypackets. They built their own accommodation for Immigration Department staff – so there was a lot of construction. A big boom. And you follow that with a big bust.
Then you have the huge increase in occupancy, and the huge increase of people brought to work there. So the old Christmas Island Resort was reopened and refurbished, and the owner of that made millions out of hiring rooms. The department spent a lot of money in accommodation and services on the island. Businesses prospered.
Now, of course, when the occupancy had gone right down, until most recently the detention of 501s, we call them [detainees for deportation, named after section 501 of the Immigration Act], we’ve got about 40 or so asylum seekers and about 150 of the 501s. So they’re the great majority, they’re the new prison population.
So the economic impact? We’re on the rise again, slowly but not as hugely as before. The businesses will be quite happy about that. But it won’t be what it was when we had 3,000 people in detention, of course.
As secretary of the union, I represent workers out there. Most of the local workers at the detention centre are occupied in work they would have to do whether the centre had occupants or not. But, the numbers of people in catering, of course, would be reduced if you had nobody in the centre. The government is giving us the idea they’re going to keep using this place – it’s an asset that cost them a lot of money, and it’s an asset they’re going to use, and they’re going to come up with ways of using it as they have this case with the deportees.
It’s a bit about the government using their asset to do a job that they need to do, which is detain deportees. And it’s also a bit about the government being nervous about wrecking the economy of the island by not using the detention centre. So there’s some political, and some economic considerations.
What are Christmas Island locals’ views of the detention centre?
There are some people who have never wanted the detention centre here. There are some of those, like me, who think it’s wrong to imprison people who have done no crime – the whole policy and legal structure that’s evolved to detain asylum seekers is repugnant to some people like me. We’re a minority. Other people don’t like Muslims or are afraid of people who are put in prisons and might get out, as they did in 2011. There was a mass escape, which was a well organised political protest by the detainees – they caused no damage to any person.
You’ve got a mix of responses. Most people probably don’t consider all aspects when they make their judgements. Most people just react according to their conditioning.
Generally, most human beings do have some sympathy at the core of their hearts for others. The idea, I guess, that if you’re in this situation, how would you feel, how would you want to be treated? That gets most people at some point. There’s not a great rage about anything. There’s probably more indifference.
People have largely settled back to our traditional economy, which is the phosphate mine, which is why anybody lives here now, was established in 1897, before that it was an uninhabited island. The whole culture of the place – the work and social life of people has formed around that 100 years or more of phosphate mining on the island. So the mine goes on, and people are employed in the mine, which is probably the biggest employer now that the detention centre operations have relaxed. But I think that the detention centre operations will again surpass the number of employees of the mine.
Did the federal government not say it was planning to close the Christmas Island centre?
When the budget was delivered in May this year, the budget provided for the detention centre to be empty by July next year, and that it would be maintained on a contingency basis. So you’d have your cleaners and your gardeners and your security people – they would have had a big maintenance bill and no one in it. I don’t know whose bright idea it was to bring the deportees to Christmas Island, but I do know there were problems in some centres with people escaping, such as the Yongah Hill detention centre in Western Australia, and the minister made some statement along the lines that if you play up in the detention centres on the mainland, we’ll send you to Christmas Island.
So the threat was that this is your punishment. And it is a punishment. If you’re in a detention centre in Sydney, where your family are not far away, can visit you any day of the week, and you’re sent to Christmas Island then your family is going to face a bill of thousands just to fly here.
Do the population of Christmas Island identify as Australians?
We’ve been an Australian territory since 1958. You could say we’re a colony of Australia. The population is majority origin in Malaysia and Singapore. Chinese and Malay workers were brought to Christmas Island to provide cheap labour for the phosphate mines during the colonial period, and that colonial period extended up to 1975, when the union was formed, and of course you had the Racial Discrimination Act coming into effect into Australia.
But where do people identify? I think most people identify as living in Australia, but they also have a separate, predominant identity as Christmas Islanders. So there are people that were born here, Chinese and Malay – some Malay families are fifth generation here – but it was the colonial system of contract labour, where they’d bring you here for a year or two or three for a contract and then you’d go back to Malaysisa or Singapore. The supervisor, manager class were white, from Australia, and had very much superior conditions of work and housing. And the Asian workers were subjected to very inferior housing and working conditions, rates and pay. All aspects of working and social life were arranged on racial grounds.
Our history is such that many of the Chinese and Malay people have no trust for Europeans.
Is there any sort of push for independence?
There is a movement in Norfolk Island, a very significant one, and I hope successful, for the island to be inscribed on the list of non-self-governing territories at the UN, which would lead to an act of self-determination, where normally the questions that people get to vote on are do you want to be integrated fully into Australia, do you want to be fully independent, or do you want free association with Australia?
The Norfolk Islanders are very well informed. I attended a public meeting there, and it seems to me Norfolk Island are a long way ahead of us in terms of our population understanding the issues of governance. We’re nowhere near that. We’ve been subjected to Commonwealth authority for so long we don’t have a culture that is simmering demand for self-government that people like me and others might have. It’s really appalling what’s happened over the years with the administration of the island. The resources of the public services have been cut to ribbons by Liberal and Labor governments.
If the new Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull were to call you and ask your advice on the detention centre, what would you say?
People should not be detained, whether they’re citizens or not, if they have the right to residency in Australia. They should be resident on the outside of the prison system once they’ve done their time. They should not use Christmas Island for detention of people under deportation order.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.