Christmas Island is now a symbol of policy failure
“Everyone has been accounted for…..we think.”
The chaotic events on Christmas Island last week were the clearest sign of dysfunction in Australia’s immigration detention system in close to a decade.
Had it not been for the recent devastation in Japan, images of rioting, tear gas, fires and general pandemonium on Christmas Island would have led every bulletin and been on the front page of every paper in the land. That they were not has bought the Government some breathing room, unfortunately, their response thus far appears to be largely in keeping with the ham-fisted ineptitude that has characterised their time in office.
The current immigration detention crisis is most easily understood through an examination of the raw numbers. Australia currently has more than 6600 people in immigration detention. Before last week’s riots, 2300 were crammed into various facilities on Christmas Island which were only designed to house 1500 at most.
Thanks to the uninterrupted flow of boats, and last year’s freeze on applications from Sri Lankans and Afghans, the average processing time for asylum applications has blow out from 100 days to 165 days, and for a security clearance from 37 days to 66 days. The average asylum seeker now spends 214 days in detention. It took 190 AFP officers to reassert control on Christmas Island after seven days of riots, escapes and vandalism.
Now, these numbers are disturbing enough in their own right. But even more disturbing was the mystery surrounding the most important number of all. Ridiculous as it seems, more than a week after 170 male detainees pushed over a cyclone fence and simply walked away, neither the Immigration Department nor the AFP were able to confirm how many were still unaccounted for.
On March 13 the Prime Minister told reporters there was no risk of losing track of the escapees because there was nowhere for them to go. Eight days later the number still on the lam was an unknown figure of “up to 20”.
On Monday afternoon the Immigration Department announced that all missing detainees had been located and were back inside the detention facility. On Tuesday morning, the AFP wasn’t so sure. On Tuesday night Immigration Minister Chris Bowen admitted to some “discrepancies”. This morning it appears all missing detainees have finally been accounted for. Whether or not the official line changes again, Minister Bowen needs to explain how it is possible for there to have been such confusion about the number missing. It stands to reason, the only way the authorities could be in any doubt as to how many detainees were missing, is if they weren’t entirely sure how many were supposed to be there in the first place.
Consider the implications. Are we honestly to accept as reasonable, the possibility that the authorities are uncertain as to how many detainees they have responsibility for at any one time? It’s the kind of lapse that would see any boarding house supervisor in the world sacked on the spot. That almost 200 detainees were able to escape from a supposedly secure facility in the first place is bad enough.
That it took more than a week to locate them all is a disgrace. But that the authorities appeared to have no sure-fire way of calculating how many of them were missing is nothing short of unforgivable.
Unsurprisingly, local residents on Christmas Island are at the end of their tether, fed up that their once peaceful island idyll has been turned into an antipodean Alcatraz and frustrated that their warnings about the potentially explosive conditions at the detention centres were ignored. They believe last week’s violence was inevitable; a sorry combination of overcrowding and understaffing all but ensuring things would go wrong.
It has been revealed that on some occasions fewer than 10 guards were responsible for guarding as many as 1600 detainees. It beggars belief that it has taken a week of chaos for the Government to finally acknowledge what should have been obvious from the beginning, namely, that you cannot shoehorn an infinite number of people into a finite space and expect everything to be alright.
Now that a significant part of the Christmas Island detention facilities have been destroyed by fire and rioting, the Immigration Department will have little choice but to accommodate thousands more detainees on the mainland. The challenge for the Government now is to determine how best to proceed with asylum applications from those responsible for the violence.
One thing is for certain however; over the coming months, this Government will yet again have to spend a significant amount of time and money cleaning up a mess of its own making. From the motherhood statement of “tough but humane”, to the humiliation of the Oceanic Viking incident, to the application freeze, right up to the brain snap announcement of the “East Timor solution”, the Government’s approach to this incredibly sensitive issue has been one of bewildered vacillation and incompetence.
The result has been a case study in policy failure and an exercise in administrative dysfunction.
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