Friday, December 19, 2008


John Howard's detention centre to open

The Australian, 19.12.2008

IMMIGRATION officials have been forced to open the 800-bed, Howard-era detention centre on Christmas Island to accommodate a growing number of unauthorised boat arrivals intercepted in the past three months.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans yesterday gave permission for the Immigration Department to use the facility, which has been empty since completion this year.

The development followed signs Mr Evans will consider a push by refugee advocates to allow those in mandatory detention access to Australian courts in a bid to improve oversight of the system.

The decision to open Christmas Island comes after the arrival on Tuesday of a seventh vessel, intercepted by the Australian Navy 200km northeast of Darwin.

It brings to 164 the number of unauthorised boat arrivals intercepted by Australian authorities -- compared with last year's 148.

The boat's 37 passengers and crew -- believed to be a mix of Afghans and other Middle Eastern nationals -- will be the first immigration detainees housed at the $400 million facility built by the Howard government.

The 37 men are expected to arrive on Christmas Island this weekend.

A spokesman for the Immigration Department said they would be held at the North West Point facility for health, identity and security screening.

"Accommodation arrangements are determined by the numbers of arrivals as well as the need to separate groups for processing, public health management, gender, culture and other reasons," the spokesman said. "The Government's policy is to open the new facility when numbers and separation arrangements required it."

No women, children or families will be housed at the facility, the spokesman said.

The decision was condemned by refugee advocacy groups, who predicted the facility would have a damaging effect on the psychological health of detainees.

Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said she was very sad the Government had taken this step. "I've seen the detention prison and I know from past experience that places like that make people sick," Ms Curr told The Australian.

Yesterday, Senator Evans said the move was consistent with Labor policy. "The Rudd Government's policy is to accommodate small groups of unauthorised boat arrivals in the Phosphate Hill and Construction Camp facilities while they undergo health, security and identity checks," he said.

The move comes after Senator Evans told The Australian he envisaged Australia's detention principles "evolving" over time.

"There's a bit of a push for judicial review of the decision to detain," he said.

"I don't have a closed mind to that, if that makes the system more accountable."

Since coming to office last year, the Rudd Government has instituted a raft of changes to Australia's migration policy, as well as boosting the number of migrants.

In one of his first acts as minister, Senator Evans shut down the so-called Pacific Solution -- a series of offshore processing centres for unauthorised boat arrivals.

In May, the Government abolished the system of temporary-protection visas for refugees -- a move some have said has contributed to the recent spate of unauthorised arrivals, something the Rudd Government denies.