Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Doing Time on Christmas Island

While the media and skeptics go round and round over James Cameron’s new documentary claiming to have possibly found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, I came across an update on a massive detention installation that is being built on Christmas Island just off the coast of Australia.
A quick history lesson (and correct me if any of this is inaccurate) tells us that for centuries, Christmas has resisted settlement with its natural palisades and rugged coastal geography. After British and Dutch navigators charted the island in the early seventeenth century, it wasn’t until Christmas Day, the 25th of December in 1643 when it was named “Christmas Island” after Captain William Mynors of the East India Ship Company vessel, the Royal Mary, called it such upon his arrival there.
However, the island remained undockable for years despite multiple attempts, until finally in 1888 the British government annexed it and managed to establish a mining outpost there.
After bringing over laborers from China, Malaysia and Singapore, the Japanese eventually invaded the island in 1942, which resulted in the internment of the foreign miners until the end of WWII.

[Image: British military encampent during the bombing tests conducted on Christmas Island under 'Operation Grapple.']

[In 1957, the British government used the island for bomb testing, and successfully exploded their first hydrogen bomb there under a program detailed on this site, called ‘Operation Grapple.’ From the BBC, “It was almost certainly part of the thermo-nuclear weapons programme which was started in December 1954 to develop the megaton hydrogen bomb, which is as powerful as one million tons of TNT.“ Finally, in 1958 Australian representatives claimed the island under the Australian Indian Ocean Territories.

However, the internment of laborers during WWII would only mark the beginning of this island’s soon to be bright future in the bustling global detention market. Reading on, we are reminded that during the late 80’s and early 90’s Christmas Island was met heavily by boatloads of refugees mostly from nearby Indonesia. During 2001, Christmas Island received a large number of asylum seekers traveling by boat, most of them from the Middle East, intending to apply for asylum in Australia.
But, after the Norwegian cargo vessel MV Tampa rescued hundreds of people from the sinking refugee boat in international waters, the Australian government refused to let the ship dock in its territory. Soon an international fiasco had ignited between Australia, Norway, and Indonesia, and with roughly 450 asylum seekers (mostly from Afghanistan) stranded at sea, and so close to reaching the mainland, the Australian SAS took over and had them routed to Nauru Island (another major offshore detention island near Papua New Guinea) after the captain of the ship threatened to dump them on Christmas Island.

[Video: A clip from a movie documentary about Australia's detention policy entitled We Will Be Remembered For This.]

Since 2005 Australia’s Department of Immigration has been constructing an "Immigration Reception and Processing Centre." 2,400 km from Perth, 360 km from Jakarta and nearly 2000 km from Darwin, this deteniton complex is at the far end of the island which, according to this dispatch, is a narrow strip 24 km long and 7 km wide.
Keep in mind, as Angela tells us, “under Australian law it is possible to intern people extra-judicially (without trial or charge) and, since 2004, to do so indefinitely. Migration detention is, therefore, a wholly administrative matter.”
So just what exactly are they building out there in them pristine jungles?
Well, it turns out it’s not just some rinky dink detention outfit with some barbed-wire fencing and ramshackle barracks cliff-side. No, this is a $396 million tropical prison paradise. That’s right. For what the government refers to as a ‘deterrent to illegal immigration’, it is a state of the art 800-bed prison complex, with electric fences, movement detectors, hundreds of surveillance cameras, hidden microphones in the trees, the works.

[Image: "Camp Howard" - Australia's very own Guantanamo Bay on Christmas Island, Feb. 2007.]

“The camp on Christmas Island has CCTV linked to a RCR [Remote Control Room] so guards in Canberra can watch detainees around the clock.” And planners aren’t leaving any thing out for this rugged remote little island prison either. “Detainees will wear electronic ID tags or cards, identifying them wherever they are.” While the place crawls with guards wandering in between a perimeter of checkpoint cubicles, there is a hospital, operating theatre and visiting rooms, solitary cells, and even family units and a nursery. “Everything can be controlled remotely — doors, TV, radio.”

{Image: Floor plan for the Detention Facility at Christmas Island.]

In addition to developing this offshore island-chain barrier against migration, the Australian government has launched its border patrol ship, the Triton, dubbed the ‘prison ship’ by critics. This “98-metre trimaran” is said to be capable of detaining “30 people for up to a month" on board and is "armed with twin machine guns.”

[Image: The ACV Triton Australian Border Patrol Ship.]

While officially deployed to patrol and intercept illegal fisherman, others are more concerned what the Triton could mean for migrants stranded at sea already facing one of the most conservative immigration-intolerant nations in the world. One can only imagine the day when the oceans are dotted with naval networks of prison hulks patrolling the future migration routes at sea, routing floatable detention centers full of refugees through the militarized channels of the great detention archipelago; the nomadic fortress clenching it's powerful sea jaws down on all those who flee their native shores from persecution.
I’m not sure if the construction of Christmas Island's detention facility is complete yet or not, but so far 85 asylum seekers were recently sent their after being rescued near the island by the Australian navy. There was even talk of them being sent back to Sri Lanka via Indonesia and Nauru.
“Under Australia's Pacific Solution introduced in 2001” the Washington Post writes, “to deter asylum seekers and people smugglers, people who arrive illegally by boat can be sent to immigration detention in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru while their claims are assessed.”

[Image: Sri Lankans asylum seekers are transported to Christmas Island from HMAS Success, which intercepted their boat last week. Photo: Kee Seng, The Age, 2007.}

However, by intercepting them and detaining them on Christmas Island, they never have legal recourse for applying to Australia for asylum since they have not technically met the mainland. The Migration Act stipulates refugees must reach the mainland to file a claim.
While the Australian government says it will not repatriate the refugees if there is evidence they will face persecution in their homeland Sri Lanka, officials have also been adamant about them never reaching the mainland.
Where does that leave them? Well, Christmas Island for now.

(spotted at del.icio.us/diasporas.)

Also, be sure to read Alex Trevi's take on The geography of displacement.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Bryan, great post. A couple of remarks:

rescued near the island by the Australian navy

It's not clear to me that they were indeed "rescued" so much as interdicted - the Govt's press release talks about them being persuaded onto the naval vessel on the grounds that the boat was unsafe. Now, it might be true that it was unsafe; but just as probable that this was not the case. There is, as yet, very little information that isn't mediated through the govt, and given their propensity to lie and/or spin, it's best to take everything they say with a truck of salt. And not for a moment do I believe that they were their saviours, as the govt is purporting. At stake, as always, was how they might control their movements - better to have them on the navy ship than in the boat. But, until there's some other route of information, it's best not to assume what the AU govt says is true.

It's also worth noting that the 'rules of engagment' allow for the use of force. See this. And, they have also before this boarded vessels and 'disabled' them.

The other thing I thought important to note is that it's not strictly speaking about whether boats reach the mainland.

The introduction of the 'excision' laws not that many years ago means that the Govt can, by changes to regulations, decree that parts of Australia are not part of the 'migration zone'.

It could be anywhere, and for any time. Indeed, it can have retrospective force: eg, a boat lands somewhere, the govt decrees that it's was when the boat landed, say, yesterday, outside the 'migration zone'. (Some more on that, and some other stuff, here.)

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its all chilling stuff. One small note: You write "...the Triton could mean for migrants stranded at sea already facing one of the most conservative immigration-tolerant nations in the world."

Shouldn't that be immigration-intolerant?

10:32 PM  
Blogger Bryan Finoki said...


you are correct. thanks for pointing that out. i have updated the post. and thanks for reading!


i was hoping you would weigh in, and i am glad you did.

thanks for pointing out the naiveté in my recounting of the "government rescue." i'm with you, especially when you point out these other things, like the right to sink refugee boats; and pre-emptive violence against asylum seekers. Shoot now, fish bodies out of the ocean and fish for their stories and papers later. crazy, but not surprising, sad to say.
and the nebulosity of migration zone boundaries. of course, the Australian Navy would reserve the right to flexibly define and apply that zone whenever, however and wherever they see fit. if the targets don't come to you, make the battlefield go to them.
'the archipelago of exception' could never be more apt a title.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

its also worth adding that sabotage is partt of australia's program of 'border defence':

"In the meantime, disturbing new information has come to light that Australian Federal Police (AFP) agents in Indonesia initiated, on September 27, 2000, a program of deliberately sabotaging refugee boats before they set sail for Australia. From the evidence now available it is entirely possible—even likely—that SIEV X was one of them."

from WSWS

i wonder how many other nation-states have similar programs...


4:32 AM  
Blogger Bryan Finoki said...


thanks for pointing that out. reminds me of certain Isreali Defense Force's policy, which allows for the demolition of any structures (houses, shacks, schools, etc.) suspected of harboring smuggler tunnels in Gaza.
At least i think i have that right.
Pre-emptive strikes. scary logics.
i will look into this though further, the right to sabotage refugee boats. that sounds egregious and not only destructive, but so depriving of one's chances to escape hell to better their own life, that it is beyond crazy. beyond defending your borders. it's plain crippling of the homeless.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Roy & McHardy said...

Thanks for the info--very useful to my research. However, you need to realize there are 2 Christmas islands (one in the Pacific, about 1000 miles south of Hawaii I believe, the other close to Australia). You have posted images (the aerial view of an island and the image of British H-bomb test) that belong to OTHER Christmas Island.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your first three images all relate to Christmas island in the Republic of Kiribati (in the Pacific) where the bomb testing occurred.

7:25 AM  
Blogger bluemoon said...

I've been on Christmas Island twice in the last year. The community is totally opposed to this prison and will tell you that the cost would be much higher than the government admits. As well, Australia has a policy of no children in detention, so why is there a nursery and child care centre inside the prison?
(and with 'wet" and "dry" play areas - which are not terms used at all in the childcare industry in Australia - its a tropical island - children play outdoors) A look at the plans online shows this. There is also a "basketball court" which has an exaggerated slope...the explanation being that its for the rain to run off. coincidentally the basketball court also fulfills the criteria for a missile launching site. This is information from islanders who have worked on the project and construction workers on the flights which i flew in and out on. It is a general belief that this is in fact a cover for a more sinister operation, that is an international prison run by/with the US military who have visited the island site of the centre and checked out all the local facilities.
Thanks for all your research in putting this post out to the public. Christmas Island is remote and pristine. An influx of prison and military staff with no connection or regard for the island and its small community would be an ecological and social disaster.
The problems the community had with the flyin flyout construction workers highlights this.
My current favorite conspiracy theory on this is that this site will be used for medical experiments and torture of international prisoners, a replacement for Guantanamo Bay. Why else the extreme security and medical services? There is nowhere to escape to - the security is to keep people out.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

thanks for that comment, good info.
one thing that startles me is how those pieces you talk about, basketball court, playground, etc, seem vaguely humanitarian at best (as if they were providing recreational relief) is how they help institutionalize these places, make them suitable for permanence and long term habituality. but the notion of a dynamic detention center design that could be used for something else is predictable, and frightening.
i mean all of these remote detention islands are part of a greater archepilagic whole, for geopolitical round up, war on terror secrecy, extraordinary rendition, i mean the law is a ghost now, its enforcers are vaporous, the dungeons are mobile and fleeting,
please keep in touch, keep me posted.
what took you to the islands in the first place?
any other resources on your statements would be appreciated.
thanks for taking the time to chat here

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan, I was on christmas island twice last year to work with a children's circus. a wonderful project it was indeed. there was also a small group of aboriginal acrobats from the community of Ernabella in the centre of Australia who came to perform with the young people on Christmas Island.
the community really took them in and bonded with their visitors from another remote place. As the project unfolded and we saw what can happen when a wonderful isolated and human community cares, it pointed up the strangeness of putting this giant prison amongst them. Residents will tell you that last year a group of 5 (I think that's the correct number) high ranking military types from the usa visited the island, the prison and the hospital facilities, questioning if there were MRI machines available on island. (no there is not) Peter Garrett, govt minister also flagged the idea of transfering American prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Christmas Island, then rapidly backtracked.
There is also some tension on the island between groups as the government built a brand new state of the art recreation centre up near the prison, well away from the community. Islanders appeared to be blaming each other for asking for it and getting it put in such a stupid location....well not so stupid as that is where the prison wardens will be living. Interestingly enough i could not find anyone on the island who would admit to applying for the rec centre, it just got built.
The plans for the detention centre were/are on-line. My information on the misslelaunch pad disguised as a basketball court come from a)an engineer on christmas island who told me of it as an example of the "curious design" of the place.
The official comment when he queried the excessive slope was "it's to help the rainwater run off the court. He's an engineer and he didn't buy it. The comment about it being a missle launch pad came from a European friend who fled the former yugoslavia in the ninties and had seen some missle launch action.
It is a remarkable place both environmentally and socially and it is in very real danger of destruction. Currently people dont lock their houses and leave the keys in their cars as crime is virtually none existant. crabs and birds are protected by everyone, the children hold regular events and poster blitzes which warn people to look after the creatures. You can walk directly into a pristine bay with coral and fish right up to the shoreline...how long will this last when the community is "invaded" by contract personel from the prisons department who have no ties to the island????
Well, that's a big rant isn't it? The people on christmas island are aware of the problems and try very hard to get information about the future of the island, but they have no proper representation - partly governed by WA state and other aspects by the commonwealth. So its easy for them to be dismissed. It's a very sad thing i think.
Cheers Nancy

1:29 AM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

i jsut posted a huge comment and it got erased. no idea how.
anyway, thanks again for your post. i am so curious about this place.
will you be going back?
do you have any pics from your times there?
it's good to hear that the local are stacking their resistance. what types of activism are being organized there?
how has the camp affected the local economy?
what direct engagement do the locals have with the camp?
has the camp shifted local politics in any way?
have there been any reports f torture, or secret areas of the camp to house terrorist suspects?
so many questions.
please keep me updated, and let me know if you plan on making another trip. how is travel there anyway?
is the camp still expanding?
i could ask you a billion questions, but will refrain from now.
email me if you have imgs.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Strong Believer! said...

Hey i just want to let you know that October 2008 I had a Personal tour of this center by one of the men themselves that are in charge of the whole scene!(Not going to give away any identity for confidential reasons!)I am 14 and am in year 9 and my family have had massive involvement with the island over numerous years...and what i saw on this tour just disguted me! To sum this up short WHY???? should we lock innocent people up inside such a disgusting and scary place that is more high tech then the Main Gaol in Canberra??

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Maryanne Kowalski said...

Sir Walter Scott:

Heap on the wood!-the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still.

4:26 AM  

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