Christmas Island

The Australian Asylum Controversy Extends to Indonesia

The on-going Australian asylum-seeking controversy has recently spread to the Indonesian island of Java. On August 20, the Jakarta Post announced the arrest of “28 illegal immigrants hiding in a forested coastal area of South Cianjur, West Java. The immigrants were part of a large group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who were heading to Christmas Island.” The report went on to note that a total 61 asylum seekers have been detained, and that a number of others are still being sought. The Australian government had previously reached an agreement with Indonesia that would allow its navy to turn boats with asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, but it has announced that it will not pursue that option.

Christmas Island is a small (135 km2; 52 sq mi) Australian territory located much closer to Java than to the Australian mainland.  Asylum seekers bound for Australia are held in detention centers on the island for processing. Because many detainees are eventually given visas and allowed into the country, boats carrying refugees often head for the island. Detainees on the island now number almost 1,700, as opposed to 1,400 permanent residents. Overcrowding is resulting in serious shortages of milk, fuel, and other goods on the island.

To cope with the record number of new arrivals, the Australian government has ordered the reopening of the detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that had been employed by the previous, much more conservative, government. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party is now taking a hard line herself, threatening “indefinite detention for boat arrivals”—a maneuver much opposed by the Green Party. According to a recent report, the Australian intelligence service has discovered that “people smugglers have been overheard telling clients that even if they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they will eventually get to Australia if they are patient enough,” informing their customers that that “Nauru is ‘just another Christmas Island.’”

Australian law courts, meanwhile, are handling dozens of suits brought forth by former detainees on Nauru, many of who claim to have been suffered physical abuse along with “forced solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for as many as four weeks.” Over the past year, the government awarded former detainees with several million dollars in compensation funds.



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The Zone of Excision: Australia’s Island Screen

The standard model of global geography depicts all international borders as equivalent, simple lines on a map that indicate precisely where the sovereignty of one state ends and that of another begins. In actuality, land borders vary tremendously in their significance and permeability, ranging from the heavily militarized “demilitarized zone” of Korea to the almost residual divisions within Europe’s Schengen Area of open movement. Maritime borders are still more complex. According to international law, state sovereignty extends only twelve nautical miles from the low tidal line, a baseline that is not easily established on jagged coasts. In a more limited sense, however, territorial waters would seem to encompass the full 200 nautical miles of every maritime state’s exclusive economic zone, with some countries claiming continental shelves that extend even further into the open sea. Since neighboring countries’ 200-mile zones frequently intersect and overlap, enormous complications attend border-demarcation for all countries that front the sea.

In the case of Australia, recent governmental actions have generated a particularly ambiguous situation. Starting in September 2001, Australia “excised” a large number of islands from its official “migration zone.” As a result of this legislation, Australia’s northern islands have become a realm apart, still part of the country but not subject to its laws as far as migration and residency are concerned. Specifically, a person arriving at one of the excised islands has no right to apply for an Australian visa, and can be summarily expelled to another jurisdiction or even another country—a policy much criticized by refugee advocates. It has also been questioned for possibly compromising Australian sovereignty over this insular realm.

The Australian policy of excision stems from its desire to prevent undocumented immigrants from reaching its shores. If boats carrying refugees or illegal migrants reach one of the excised islands, their passengers are generally shipped to detention centers. One of the largest islands in the excision zone, Christmas Island, now harbors a growing detention facility of its own. On March 6, 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald outlined a report claiming that “the detainee population at Christmas Island is expected to reach 5000 within the next four years, sparking fears that Christmas Island may soon resemble a penal colony.”

Christmas Island is an interesting place in its own right, as we shall see tomorrow in the final post on Australian islands.


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