Australia opens Indian Ocean detention centre

A spate of refugee boats to Australia prompted the government on Friday to open a much-criticised new immigration detention centre on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.

The detention centre on Christmas Island, built at a cost of Aus$400-million ($276-million), has been criticised by human rights groups as harsh and prison-like.

“It’s bleak, it’s forbidding, it’s a long way from the rest of the community on Christmas Island and it’s a very unwelcoming place,” Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes told local radio.

“I think that’s a very inappropriate way to treat people who, whilst not obeying all of the rules of Australia, have come from very traumatic and difficult situations in countries overseas.”

Christmas Island is an Australian offshore territory, about 1 500km west of Australia’s northern mainland and about 380km south of Indonesia’s island of Java.

The new detention centre can house 800 illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. The government said women, children and family groups would not be held at the centre, but would be housed in other immigration department accommodation on the island.

Australia’s centre-left Labour government wanted to keep the centre in mothballs after criticising the former conservative government for building it, but a new influx of refugee boats has forced a change of a policy.

“The government’s policy is to open the new facility when numbers and separation arrangements required it,” the Immigration Department said in a statement.

Australian authorities have intercepted six boats trying to make it to Australia, with 135 suspected asylum-seekers on board, in the past three months.

The Labour government, elected in 2007, has been keen to say its decision to dump the former government’s policy of detaining all asylum-seekers, and a decision to shut down the navy over Christmas, is not to blame for the latest boat arrivals.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans in July said Australia’s international reputation had been tarnished by the former policy of compulsory detention of asylum-seekers, who were sent to offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The Australian Greens political party said the new Christmas Island centre should never have been built as Australia’s remote detention centres had a bad record of negative psychological and physical effects on asylum-seekers.

“This facility, of monstrous size and cost to taxpayers, is not an appropriate way to accommodate people who have arrived in Australia seeking our assistance,” said Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

“Offshore processing of claims entrenches an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards asylum-seekers,” she said.—Reuters

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