The isolated location of Christmas Island makes it impossible to implement a humane immigration policy, and is leading to extreme detention conditions that are inappropriate and out of step with the Government’s stated ‘new detention values’, Amnesty International Australia has said, following a research trip to the remote Australian territory.

“Of particular concern are the significant and disturbing levels of overcrowding within the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre, which has led to the use of tent and demountable accommodation, and the lack of ready access to essential services such as adequate mental health care. This situation is completely unacceptable,” said Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

“Immigration detention on Christmas Island should be stopped. The island is too remote, and the logistical challenges too great for this policy to be effective or sustainable. The policy of excision is not working. It does not have a deterrent effect on people seeking protection from persecution, and constitutes a fundamental breach of Australia’s international obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention,” said Graham Thom.

“Over 90 percent of asylum seekers that arrive in Australia by boat are found to be refugees and granted permanent protection visas. These people are being housed in what is effectively a high security prison facility, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to Australian taxpayers. There is no reason why asylum seekers should not have their claims processed on the Australian mainland, where appropriate support services can be provided far more easily and at a fraction of the cost to Australian taxpayers,” said Graham Thom.

“The policy of housing asylum seekers on Christmas Island compromises the ability of the Government to implement its own ‘detention values’. It is clear that there is significant goodwill on the part of many people, including Serco and Department of Immigration staff on the island, to try to make the best of the extremely difficult conditions they are facing,” said Graham Thom. “The reality is though, that the remote location of the island makes it impossible to implement a truly humane immigration policy there.”

The international human rights group has also expressed concern with the length of time it is taking for some asylum claims to be processed.

Amnesty International acknowledges that the Government has taken significant steps to speed up processing times for some groups. However, a group of asylum seekers have been in detention on Christmas Island for over six months and small number of people have been there for close to a year.

“The Government has publicly committed to using detention as a last resort, and only while health, security and identity checks are carried out. In practice this promise is not being honoured, as people are being routinely detained on Christmas Island for long periods,” said Graham Thom.

“Many asylum seekers arrive in Australia suffering extreme trauma. Extended periods of detention and uncertainty are hugely detrimental to their mental health. We urge the Government to improve processing times for all asylum seekers, particularly given the overcrowded conditions in the detention facilities,” said Graham Thom.

After inspecting the Construction Camp, where families with children and unaccompanied minors are housed, Amnesty International has found that the facility is blatantly unsuitable for this purpose, due to cramped conditions and lack of free access to appropriate green areas and play amenities.

“Families with young children, unaccompanied minors and women are housed in cramped demountables, behind guarded fences. With the exception of school attendance they must be accompanied by guards at all times when they leave the complex. These conditions would be unacceptable on the Australian mainland. As a matter of priority, these particularly vulnerable groups should immediately be removed from immigration detention on Christmas Island and brought to the mainland where they can be housed appropriately in the community,” said Graham Thom.

Amnesty International also met with representatives from a range of community groups on Christmas Island, many of whom expressed concern over the capacity of the island’s resources and infrastructure to cope with the ballooning population. Christmas Island has a permanent population of 1100, and there are currently over 300 staff and service providers on the island to cater for the needs of asylum seekers.

Amnesty International visited Christmas Island from 7 December to 11 December to inspect immigration detention facilities and get a comprehensive overview of the human rights situation on the island.