The protest that has erupted inside the Christmas Island detention centres is the largest to confront the government since the protest and fire that destroyed the Nauru detention camp on 19 July 2013.
At least ten people have stitched their lips together and hundreds are on hunger strike in both the single men’s and family compounds, Aqua and Lilac, with 350 of them saying they will hunger strike for a week. Up to ten people have been hospitalised after attempting suicide or self-harming with glass and razor blades.
Christmas Island is a shockingly overcrowded warehouse for around 2200 asylum seekers, all of whom have arrived since 19 July 2013—the start of PNG deal introduced by the Rudd Labor government. Tony Abbott says they will all be sent to Nauru or Manus Island to be processed, and none resettled in Australia. Since the start of the most recent protest around 40 single men have been transferred to Manus Island.
The conditions on the island are bad—inadequate medical services, too few toilets. In November, The Guardian revealed that 15 doctors wrote a damning report about Christmas Island to their employer and detention provider, IHMS. Among other things the doctors say: asylum seekers queue for up to three hours for medication (and some queue four times a day); antenatal care is unsafe, and inadequate; basic medical stocks are low; drugs requested by doctors are not provided; and long delays in transferring patients to the mainland are leading to life-threatening risks.
But it is the lack of information and the uncertainty of future processing and resettlement that is driving the protests. Some people have already been in detention seven months, and the government says that processing will only start when they are sent off-shore.
A letter written by protesting asylum seekers in Lilac compound asked Immigration Minister Morrison, “We have already been told that all of us will be sent to Nauru, but let us know how long this will take? What will eventually happen for us?”
The UNHCR’s most recent official report from late November said that conditions on Manus Island were appalling and that the detention centre violates the UN’s prohibition on torture! PNG and Nauru say they will start processing in February—but with no more than three people at any one time on Manus Island to do any processing, it will be many, many months before people are processed.
Morrison has had to admit that neither PNG nor Nauru have anything in place to accommodate or resettle anyone found to be a refugee. Indeed it is essentially impossible for refugees to become citizens in PNG while Nauru has said refugees cannot become citizens and will not be resettled.
The Christmas Island protests are just the tip of the iceberg of the crisis and contradictions that riddle Abbott’s detention regime.
By Ian Rintoul