A Riot on Christmas Island

How a tiny, remote island became the theatre of Australian immigration politics

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Late one Sunday night in early November 2015, bedlam broke out in Australia’s detention centre on Christmas Island. A small group of detainees had decided to take control. They smashed through walls and doors and broke into off–access areas. They wielded whatever was at hand as instruments of destruction: bats, machetes, a chainsaw stolen from a garden shed. All the centre’s staff, employees of Serco, had fled the scene in fear of their safety, leaving behind uncontrolled fires and almost two hundred detainees who weren’t participating in the riot. One detainee described the unfolding chaos:

“The canteen’s been smashed to pieces, there’s no security, there’s no emergency response team, there’s no border patrol, there’s no guards, there’s nothing,” he said. “They’re not here. They’ve gone. They freaked out and left.”

The destruction continued for another two days with little information from the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his Border Force, excluding the predictable refrain that the rioters were “serious criminals” who will be dealt with very harshly. Drops of information, mostly unverified, leaked out through detainees’ contact with advocates. Some reported being held in a large locked cage without food, water or a bathroom for over 24 hours, despite not taking part in the riot and the Australian Federal Police having regained control of the centre. This was denied by Dutton’s Border Force—though there’s little reason to believe them over anyone else. Residents on the tiny island knew no more than other Australians. John Richardson, an island resident, said the lack of transparency caused widespread fear amongst the small community. “The rumour mill is very strong,” he said.

Once again, this little island, far closer to Jakarta than any Australian city, had become the unlikely focal point in Australia’s violent tug-of-war over “border protection”. And again it had people wondering, What is going on?

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Christmas Island’s history is surprisingly colourful. The first documented sighting of the island was on Christmas Day, 1643 by an English East India Company ship. But it wasn’t until over two centuries later, in 1887, that someone first successfully landed on the island. Surrounded by precipitous, jagged cliffs—the island comprised of the small terrestrial tip of a 4,500m tall ex-volcano—previous excursions had sailed off for more inviting points of anchorage. But once on the island, the seamen were greeted with strange kind of paradise: millions of freaky red crabs and vast expanses of pure phosphate, a rare and valuable chemical necessary for just about all forms of agriculture.

Within months, the now very interested Brits annexed the island and began setting up extensive mining operations, using indentured workers from China, Malaysia and Singapore. Phosphate continues to be the island’s near singular export and industry, and the island’s population remains over 85% Chinese and Malay. With three quarters of Christmas Islanders being Buddhist, this Australian territory is proportionately more Buddhist than Sri Lanka, Japan or Laos.

Its valuable mineral deposits and strategic military location made the island a prime piece of real estate during the Second World War. It was the target of a violent Japanese invasion and occupation. In March 1942, Japanese bombers attacked the island and a fleet of nine vessels arrived, carrying some 850 soldiers. A group of treasonous Sikh policeman had cleared the way by murdering several British officers tasked with protecting the island. Japanese forces occupied the island until the end of the war. Christmas Island remains the only foreign occupied Australian territory in the nation’s history.

Its relationship with boats full of asylum seekers began relatively peacefully during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Seemingly against the wishes of the current government, Australia is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The United Nations document stipulates that any person who arrives in Australian territory and seeks asylum—regardless of the means of arrival—must have their application processed within our borders. If they are found to fulfil the strict criteria set out by the convention, Australia must offer protection. Following these internationally-agreed obligations, all boat arrivals during these decades were sent to mainland Australia where they were processed and, by and large, granted asylum.

But the island became thrust into the spotlight during what became one of the most notorious events in Australian political history. On 21 August 2001, a barely buoyant boat of asylum seekers was slowly making its way to Christmas Island. It began taking water. A distress signal was sent out. The Law of the Sea requires the closest vessel capable of responding to the distress call to do so immediately. That vessel happened to be a Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, mastered by Arne Rinnan, which was making its way from Fremantle, Western Australia, to Singapore.

It arrived four hours later to a small, fast-sinking wooden vessel: the Palapa 1. Tampa’s crew of 27 fast began pulling people from the Palapa, which was now sinking more quickly as it broke apart with heavy seas smashing it against the larger ship’s steel hull. The crew were astounded at the number of people emerging. “We passed 400,” one crewman recalled, “and it just seemed like the boat just never got empty.” The 27m-long boat was carrying 438 men, women and children, predominantly Hazara refugees fleeing the brutal Taliban regime in Afghanistan with whom we were soon to engage in post–9/11 war. Every person on the Palapa made it safely aboard, moments before the tiny vessel was submerged entirely beneath the ocean.

Prime Minister Howard refused the Tampa entry into Australian territorial waters, ordering it to continue on to Merak, Indonesia, twelve hours away. They threatened to prosecute Captain Rinnan as a people-smuggler if he disobeyed. The hotly contested 2001 Federal Election was fast approaching and the incumbent PM Howard was determined to demonstrate his formidable gumption on national border control. But Christmas Island was just four hours away, and international laws stipulate survivors of shipwrecks are to be taken to the nearest port for medical treatment. Like the Palapa, the Tampa wasn’t designed to hold 438 people. A dozen refugees had passed out sick, several women were heavily pregnant, and the few hundred new passengers were adamant they weren’t going back to Indonesia. Rinnan took the moral high seas and steered the ship towards Christmas Island.

Once there, the standoff continued for another three days as the Australian government threatened severe legal action and scrambled for solutions. They tried to push legislation through parliament that would force the Tampa back out to sea. The port at Flying Fish Cove—Christmas Island’s only safe point of entry—was ordered to close. Eventually, Rinnan bit the bullet and attempted to dock. SAS commandos immediately entered the ship and took control.

Still desperate, the government hastily gave Australian diplomats blank cheques to find any solution that didn’t involve accepting the Hazara refugees. By this time, Indonesia was no longer on speaking terms with Australia, who were understandably pissed off we’d try to dump the boat without consulting them. But another formerly phosphate-laden island, nearly bankrupt, and flung far out in the middle of the ocean answered the call—the world’s smallest republic, Nauru. Barely blinking at the extraordinary cost, Australia birthed the ‘Pacific Solution’.

Meanwhile, Liberal politicians had hatched some legal devilry that provided a loophole from the 1951 Refugee Convention: the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) Act 2001. Offshore Australian territories and islands—especially Christmas Island—were no longer valid points of entry for people looking to immigrate. Even if asylum seekers sought asylum there, it didn’t mean we had to grant them asylum on the mainland. The government had effectively created an entirely new type of territory—one that didn’t actually count as territory for immigration purposes.

The “Tampa Affair” became the catalyst for all the would later precipitate on Christmas Island. Now no longer part of the migration zone, the government could freely set up ‘processing centres’ without worrying they’d have to grant refugees asylum on mainland Australia. They could now be detained indefinitely, sent to Australia’s newest pseudo-colony Nauru (and later Manus Island), or traded off with other nations. Howard had saved the day and, after coining his notorious catchphrase “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, won his second Federal Election.

The detention facilities on the island have changed greatly and frequently since then. A small, temporary centre was built on Phosphate Hill in the immediate wake of the Tampa Affair. Soon after, a $400 million centre, designed for 800 residents, was commissioned. But the shifting immigration policies and political situations in refugee source countries meant the numbers of boats arriving varied radically over the next few years. By 2010, the centre’s emergency “contingency capacity” was increased to 2,400. In 2013 boat arrivals jumped again and the population fast swelled past that, with 2,960 being held at one point.

Throughout this time, there were consistent question marks over the centre’s ability to secure the basic human rights of detainees. Whole families of asylum seekers were often housed in converted shipping containers 3m x 2.5m in size. An independent report from 2014 found no schooling had been given to children for an entire year—violating the UN’s Convention of the Rights of the Child. In another report, an Australian paediatrician concluded that “almost all the children on Christmas Island are sick”.

Detainees have frequently expressed their deep dissatisfaction with degrading conditions and violations of their human rights through rioting and other forms of protest. In November 2009, for instance, tensions between Afghani and Sri Lankan detainees, exacerbated by near-constant overcrowding, led to a brawl involving 200 men, broom handles and broken pool cues. A year later 160 detainees staged a sit-in, with a smaller group of ten sewing their lips together in quiet protest.

2011 saw a string of protests. In March, four nights of protest across a week culminated in a tense four hour stand-off with the Australian Federal Police. Centre staff had fled the scene, finding refuge in the gymnasium. Throughout this time, detainees would often outnumber centre guards up to 350 to one. 250 protesters, some throwing rocks and lighting fires, were met with tear gas and ‘bean-bag rounds’. Two months later, after the death of an asylum seeker in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, over 200 detainees conducted a more peaceful protest, refusing to eat or accept medical attention, while again others sewed their mouths shut. The following month a hundred detainees, some armed with metal poles and concrete blocks, erupted into protest in response to a man being forcibly removed to the high security “red block”. And again just a month later a three–day riot over the excessive processing times for applications, involving 50 detainees with improvised weapons, ended with the deployment of heavily-armed Federal Police. Rioting brought about by unjust treatment is nothing new to the island.

But what makes the November 2015 incident so different from those previous is that it had nothing to do with desperate people seeking asylum. In May 2015, the government confirmed it was now also using the centre to hold violent bikies, sex offenders, murderers and other people Dutton didn’t quite like the look of. From official reports, it was being used to house the country’s “most hardened criminals” while they awaited deportation. By the time of the riot, only around a quarter of the detainees were seeking asylum. There was only men there; all women and children had been sent off to other, more remote, inaccessible and efficiently brutal “regional processing centres” on Nauru and Manus Island. The rest were “501s”—referring to section 501 of the Immigration Act, which affords the minister to reserve the right to deny non-citizens a visa for holding a “substantial criminal record”. In practice, it comes down to Dutton’s subjective assessment of a person’s ‘character’, a provision which is all kinds of dubious.

During 2015, the number of people being detained under section 501 increased 600%. This wasn’t just unusual—it was also expensive. It wasn’t clear why non-asylum seeking immigrants, such as Ian Wightman who’d been living in Australia for 50 of his 51 years, were being sent to this tiny remote island while their visa appeal was being processed. Australia already forks out some US$459 every day a person is kept in detention—more than three times the amount Canada spends. Why would we actively make it more expensive by sending non-asylum seeking immigrants to an island thousands of kilometres from the nearest Australia city? Where a head of iceberg lettuce can cost $16? Dutton never offered any real answers.

At the time of this latest riot, the largest contingent of 501s were New Zealander—more than 70 of the 200. Across Australia, almost 10 percent of people currently in immigration detention are Kiwi. In October 2015, this revelation caused a minor political storm when New Zealand Labour MP Kelvin Davis voiced concerns about the government’s lack of action in supporting the Kiwis kept in Australian detention centres. The charge provoked former Prime Minister John Key to accuse the opposition of “back[ing] the rapists”, which wasn’t well received by anybody.

But, in hindsight, his concerns proved prophetic. MP Kelvin Davis, after visiting Kiwi detainees on Christmas Island, had publicly warned the detainees were “so angry, hungry and traumatised they are allegedly considering rioting”. All that was needed was a catalyst.

On Sunday 8 November, it arrived. An Iranian Kurdish detainee, Fazel Chegeni, had escaped the centre and the following morning was found dead at the base of a cliff. No details were given as to why or how he died. Aged in his early 30s, Chegeni had arrived by boat in Australia in 2011. A victim of government-endorsed torture back in Iran, with a scar-striped back for proof, in 2012 he was found to be in well-founded fear of persecution and granted refugee status. He was kept in Curtin Detention Centre for final security checks. But, there, a spontaneous one-minute long altercation in detention, which caused no serious injury, led to Chegeni being charged with assault. He pleaded guilty; it was his first offence; he was given six months—a sentence later determined to be “manifestly excessive” and revoked entirely. He never served any jail time, but effectively it remained a life sentence. Because of the charge, he was no longer eligible for refugee status. He was now a “501”. Christmas Island would become his home until Australia figured out where we could send him that wasn’t Iran. Australia hadn’t been getting results in its mission to find other places of resettlement, so he remained in detention for years. His experiences of torture, continuing years in detention, and now inevitable deportation left him a psychologically sick man. He’d attempted suicide several times before. And now he was dead.

News of his death, including its conspicuous lack of detail, spread quickly throughout the centre. It sparked a small group of detainees to violence and two days of destruction. Peter Dutton put the damage bill at $10 million. Seven people, all New Zealanders, deemed to be the main rioting culprits were flown off the island to a high security facility in Western Australia. Dutton assured us they’d receive an invoice for damages.

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On 22 November 2017, it was announced that the detention centre will closely entirely within seven months. Since taking office in 2013, the Liberal Party has closed many of our 17 onshore detention centres. “Stopping the Boats” was one of the few things Abbott did during his brief experience as Prime Minister (and even this claim is dubious). By deploying a paramilitary force to monitor the waters between Australia and our northern neighbours, towing back leaking boats, and giving people smugglers briefcases of cash to please go away, the relative trickle of desperate people crossing the ocean to Australia has effectively dried up. Closing Christmas Island will save around $500 million over the next five years.

Christmas Island residents are ambivalent about these future prospects. On the one hand, the detention centres have provided considerable employment opportunities for residents. When the closures go ahead, between 50 and 100 jobs will be lost—about 10 percent of total employment on the island. “We need economic development on the island,” said Christmas Island Shire President Gordon Thomson when it was initially announced in 2016, “and having attention and resources directed to a detention centre which is sometimes working, sometimes not, is devastating.” There have been talks of turning the facilities into accommodation for Asian tourists keen on seeing the island’s millions of red crabs.

But, on the other hand, many islanders deeply regret the deplorable politics in which they’ve long and often unwillingly become implicated. For most Australians, Christmas Island has become synonymous with detention. Many islanders are morally opposed to our nation’s punitive approach to asylum seekers. “People who haven't committed crimes shouldn't be detained,” President Thomson said. “Actually,” he continued with less restraint, “I am absolutely fucking appalled by what’s being done to people who have committed no crime”—referring to the thousands of people seeking asylum who’ve spent time on his home island.

But it’s not like Thomson or any other islanders will have one jot of influence on the outcome. Rather, this tiny, beautiful, mostly Buddhist territory will likely continue to be used whenever it’s politically expedient—for phosphate, military advantage or the imprisonment of people seeking safety.

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