September 22, 2014 | ABC News
The indefinite detention of asylum seeker children in immigration detention centres has been labelled inappropriate and hard-hearted by the outgoing administrator of Christmas and Cocos islands, Jon Stanhope.
Mr Stanhope’s term ends at the beginning of October and he will be replaced by former West Australian Liberal MP Barry Haase.
Mr Stanhope, a former ACT chief minister, has been an outspoken critic of the asylum seeker policies of both Labor and Coalition federal governments.
He said asylum-seeker issues dominated his time on the remote Indian Ocean islands but a major concern for him has also been what he described as the lack of democratic institutions for the non-governing territories.
Mr Stanhope said 100 children were still being held in the asylum detention centre on Christmas Island, which is located 1,600 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland.
These are the forgotten islands, the forgotten territories and to some extent the forgotten people of Australia, and that needs to change.Jon Stanhope, outgoing administrator
“Here on Christmas Island we live in the midst of a group of children… who have have been in detention for over a year, and I don’t believe by any stretch of the imagination that that is appropriate,” he said.
“I think there has to be a better way and we need to find it.”
Mr Stanhope described the policy as “incredibly hard-hearted” and said it did not reflect how Australians thought of themselves.
“When you live here, and when you see it, and when you’re bumping into these children and you know little babies, little toddlers, confined by Australia in detention centres, behind fences and have been there for over a year, and the implications of that for them, their development and their welfare, raises very serious questions for we Australians,” he said.
Islands home to Australia’s ‘forgotten people’
Mr Stanhope also reflected on the services provided to the 2,500 residents of Christmas and Cocos islands, saying they were the “forgotten people”.
As non-governing territories, the residents vote at a federal level, but not a state level.
Services are provided on contract by the Western Australian Government.
Mr Stanhope said there were no aged-care services, no mental health, respite or in-home care services, and no consultation with residents as to what they wanted or needed.
“Services are imposed by the Commonwealth through a group of public servants that live primarily in Canberra and Perth and very rarely visit the place, and have no understanding of the needs and the nature of this particular community,” he said.
“I think the people of Christmas and Cocos islands are very much put upon.
“These are the forgotten islands, the forgotten territories and to some extent the forgotten people of Australia, and that needs to change.”
Mr Stanhope said he was not arguing for self-governance, but believed the residents of Christmas and Cocos islands must be consulted over services.
“I’m just arguing for democratic-style institutions and democratic process,” he said.
“The need to consult with people about the health service, the need to consult with people about the education service, and not just leave it up to public servants in Canberra and Perth.”
Detention centre no more significant than social club: Haase
The incoming administrator, who first visited Christmas Island as a soldier in 1965, said the immigration detention centre was one of several institutions on the island.
“The existence of the detention centre is no more significant than the existence of the local social club,” Mr Haase said.
“They are simply activities that occupy the space.
“One will have no greater significance to me as administrator than the other.”
Mr Haase flagged the island’s economy, which has historically relied on phosphate mining and the detention centre, as a primary area of concern.
He said tourism had also been a mainstay of the Indian Ocean territories, with Christmas Island in particular known for its red crab migration.
“How to improve the visitation numbers is something I’ll be hoping to involve myself in,” Mr Haase said.
A parliamentary committee has recommended Christmas Island’s casino, which closed in 1988, should re-open.
He said he would examine if that was something the local community wanted.
“If there was a casino on Christmas Island, who knows, maybe it will be something for us to work hard towards in the future,” he said.
“It depends on what the local population is interested in.”
Mr Stanhope now plans to return to Canberra and work in the community sector advocating for asylum seekers and refugees.