Growing unrest on island of prisoners in Australia

09:58, March 27, 2011      

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By Xinhua writers Christian Edwards and Fu Yunwei

Over the last months, Australia's remote Christmas Island has come to resemble something more like a battleground than a natural wonderland as asylum seekers ran riot that was brought under control by police recently.

That crisis broke last week, with Federal Police using tear gas and shooting asylum seekers with controversial bean-bag pellets ( breaking the leg of one detainee) in an attempt to wrest control of the facilities back from around 250 detainees who rioted for days.

Once synonymous with top seafood and rare wildlife, the island named after a holiday is now home to an imprisoned international population that almost doubles the local population.

An Australian territory since the mid 1950s, Christmas Island is about 1,650 km from the West Australian capital Perth and just 380km south of the Indonesian island of Java.

On December 15, 2010, many Christmas islanders watched in horror as 30 asylum-seekers died in stormy surf when their boat struck rocks during one of the thousands of desperate attempts to access Australia by sea that passes Christmas Island via Indonesia.

Only this weekend, the last of the 41 survivors, who either swam ashore or were rescued by locals, were transferred into the community in western Sydney, according to a statement from refugee advocate Jamal Daoud.

The first immigration detention facility was opened on the island in 2001 and since a recent change in Australian government immigration policies regarding Tamil and Afghan refugees, it has been subject to chronic overcrowding for over a year.

Christmas Island, once the target of Japanese invaders for its rich phosphate reserves, is home to the world's largest and most spectacular crab migration, an annual event that was in the process of becoming an international tourist event.

Today, the island itself has a coastline of only 80 km and is home to just over 1,400 residents. Originally built to house just 400 people, the facilities currently house almost 3,000 people and are privately run by UK services company Serco's Australian subsidiary, Serco Australia.

Paul Allen, a migration legal expert in Surry Hills, says that facilities like those on Christmas Island are essential in the federal government's strategy of reducing the incentive to attempt to enter Australia illegally by ensuring detainees are denied legal access.

"Legally, off-shore asylum-seekers in detention to not have recourse to the same Australian laws that are accessible on the Australian mainland. The off-shore solution allows the government to ignore issues that might otherwise be played out publicly in our court system."

With asylum-seekers and illegal 'boat people,' quickly becoming a determining factor in Australia's sometimes divisive domestic politics, Christmas Islanders have found their distant garden island turning into the frontline of an issue with an all too apparent human cost.

After a decade of growing pressure, Christmas Island residents are increasingly "angry and frightened" and have accused the Australian government of failing to act on warnings that a crisis was looming in the island's detention facilities.

The riot may present itself as an opportunity to change the status quo.

An estimated 250 asylum-seekers now face criminal charges and a straight, outright rejection of their refugee claims. The government has ordered an independent review of the Christmas Island detention centre, including an inquiry into the handling of the riots by Immigration staff and Serco, the private security company that manages detention facilities.

Source: Xinhua
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