October 22, 2013 | The Australian
Customs officials carry out checks on a group of asylum-seekers at Christmas Island yesterday. Source:Supplied
CHRISTMAS Island will be converted into an indefinite holding facility for an estimated 400 asylum-seeker children and their parents, as the Coalition moves away from Kevin Rudd’s commitment that every person who arrived by boat after July 19 would be sent to Papua New Guinea.
Amid concerns of possible unrest and protests on Christmas Island, immigration officials were last night preparing to tell asylum-seekers who arrived after July 19 but before the September 7 election that they would not be transferred in the foreseeable future to Manus Island or Nauru, where their claims for asylum could be assessed.
Mr Rudd announced in July that no asylum-seeker would be able to settle in Australia if they arrived by boat without a visa and vowed that all new boat arrivals would be sent to PNG, where their claims would be assessed. He later struck a similar deal with Nauru.
The Coalition has so far kept Labor’s policy with respect to both PNG and Nauru, but the new development suggests some asylum-seekers who arrived post July 19 are not immediately bound for offshore processing. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection strives to send all arrivals offshore within 48 hours, including families.
Senior sources on Christmas Island told The Australian yesterday that those who arrived between July 19 and the election would be held indefinitely on Christmas Island, unless they agreed to go home or capacity became available to move them to Manus Island or Nauru.
The local school and the organisations that work with asylum-seeker children on Christmas Island have been informed that their charges would be staying indefinitely, unless further capacity became available in the system.
Holding children in indefinite detention was a highly contentious aspect of the Howard government’s immigration policies. In 2005, in response to growing anger, the Migration Act was changed to include the principle that children should be detained only “as a measure of last resort”.
A plan to inform the asylum-seekers of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s decision was yesterday postponed when an asylum boat carrying about 40 people arrived at the island’s Flying Fish Cove, diverting resources and staff. “Anyone who arrived from July 19 to September 7 who are the legacy of Rudd will be staying on Christmas Island and never going to the mainland,” one detention worker said.
One immigration worker said the intention was not to send the families to Nauru or Manus Island, though “this cohort can still be subjected to offshore detention at any time, particularly if there is space”.
“Everyone who arrived post-election (is going) straight to offshore within 48 hours.”
Mr Morrison said last night all those who had arrived since the election were being transferred offshore, and those who arrived after July 19 would not be settled in Australia. “Anyone who arrives illegally by boat will not be settled in Australia. There will be no exemptions. They will not get what they paid for,” he said.
About 2000 asylum-seekers arrived by boat between July 19 and the election. Of those, 972 detainees – the bulk were single men – were flown off the island to Manus Island and Nauru before Australians went to the polls.
There is growing concern about the pace at which facilities on Nauru and Manus are being ramped up by the Coalition. As of Friday, there were 1061 asylum-seekers on Manus, 827 on Nauru and 2211 on Christmas Island.
Insiders familiar with the PNG and Nauru facilities say the pace of development and the amenities are not sufficient to accommodate the rapidly rising populations.
On Nauru, asylum-seekers, including family groups, are still being housed in tents where temperatures can top 40C. There is concern that as the numbers build and as processing begins, tensions will erupt as asylum-seekers have their refugee claims rejected.
Christmas Island is being set up for long-term detention, according to guards who work there. They say the immigration department wants to establish activities and programs to avoid allowing malcontent to build as it did among long-term detainees in the lead-up to riots at the island’s main detention centre in 2011.
News that Christmas Island was to be reorganised came as the government and Labor skirmished over the Coalition’s decision to restore the emotive term “illegal” to the official lexicon.
Last week, Mr Morrison told Immigration to dump the words “irregular maritime arrival” in favour of “illegal” arrival – a term refugee advocates argue demonises asylum-seekers.
Labor’s new spokesman on immigration, Richard Marles, accused Mr Morrison of wilfully politicising the asylum issue.
“Those who come by boat are not the enemy,” Mr Marles said.
Mr Morrison defended the changes, which included substituting “clients” for “detainees” to describe asylum-seekers. “I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop,” he said.
Yesterday, Indonesian police in the province of Banten captured 240 would-be asylum-seekers, a reminder that the smuggling trade remains active, despite a marked drop in boat arrivals.
Additional reporting: Telly Nathalia