Christmas Island locals say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the island’s detention centre, which now also houses foreign criminals awaiting deportation, and the lack of accountability from the federal government.
For many years, the residents of Christmas Island have been caught up in Australia’s attempts to manage the flow of asylum seekers. But for the past few years, they say the secrecy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders has extended to their island.
The comments come as the federal government on the weekend said it had put in motion plans to boost the capacity of the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, in preparation for what may be hundreds of asylum-seekers.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the plans are a “contingency arrangement” in case they lose a High Court challenge against offshore detention.
The High Court has indicated that it expects to deliver a ruling by February on the case of a Bangladeshi woman who has been confined to the island’s detention centre, despite being verified as a refugee by Nauru’s government.
Christmas Island locals said the activity surrounding the island’s detention centre has had a marked impact on the community following the recent escape – and death – of asylum seeker Fazel Chegeni and the subsequent riot.
Many locals saidsaidsaid that when rumour spread around the island that someone had escaped from the centre, they were worried it was a foreign national criminal awaiting deportation.
“So I feel scared because I know most of the people from in the detention centre are criminals,” said Noorhidayah Ahmad.
“I feel scared … if they can escape and go around here, and I get scared because they’re criminals.”
Shire president Gordon Thomson said the local government wasn’t told there had been an escape.
“They see the territory as a place that’s the Commonwealth’s business and that the people who live here are just incidental,” he said.
“They have to provide some services, but really the territory of Christmas Island is Commonwealth land to be used for Commonwealth purposes, which is not how communities are constituted on the mainland.
“Government is about serving the people. The people elect the government and the government serves the people.
The islander’s concerns escalated when the riot broke out on the Sunday night and a roadblock kept them – and the media – away the following day.
The Shire president said he was warned he would be arrested if he tried to get around the road block.
November’s riot was the second at the detention centre, but local Peter Smith said this one was different to the 2010 event.
“That dynamic has changed the outlook of the locals to the detention centre,” he said.
“The previous riots where they all broke out and were walking through town here, no-one was overly concerned.
“But this time when we heard there were riots, everyone was locking their doors, taking their keys out of their cars and it just had a different feel about it.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it kept the island’s administrator Barry Haase informed of developments.
Following the riot, 36 detainees who had had their visas cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act were flown back to the mainland on chartered flights.
The department spokesperson said 15 had voluntarily returned to New Zealand, four had been transferred to other detention facilities and 17 were being held in Western Australia’s Casuarina jail.
There are 160 detainees – asylum seekers and so-called 501s – currently at the centre and repairs are underway to fix more than $10 million damage.
But locals said they are still being kept away.
One local and a photographer for a national broadsheet were given move on notices by the Australian Federal Police when they visited the site of where Fazel Chegeni’s body was found.
They claimed they were in the neighbouring national park, but were ordered to leave.
An AFP spokesperson said they could not find the officer responsible to verify the claim, but “in usual circumstances, move on powers are used in order to restore order within, and maintain security of the centre.”
A review into the riot and Fazel Chegeni’s death is underway and could result in penalties for Serco, which runs the centre.
The Australian Federal Police is also investigating who was responsible for the damage caused during the riot and charges may be laid.