Desperate Detainees Riot on Christmas Island Over Indefinite Detention

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Christmas Island fire

Two of the three compounds currently in operation at the Christmas Island immigration facility were set ablaze in the early hours of Wednesday morning, as a small number of detainees protested against their unjust and indefinite detention.

The demonstrators are amongst a group of 225 detainees that were transferred to the island’s North West Point Immigration Detention Centre after home affairs minister Peter Dutton decided it was necessary that they be sent there last August.

Many having been residents of our country, these migrants have had their visas cancelled on character grounds and are today classed as unlawful noncitizens.

According to Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul, tensions on the island have been mounting over recent weeks, with key grievances including being locked inside for up to 22 hours a day, as well as a lack of internet access and mobile reception.

But the main issue troubling these people is that they’re being warehoused at the remote island location for an indefinite period while the Morrison government awaits the passing of the pandemic, so it can deport them overseas in relation to crimes they’ve already served time in prison for.

Christmas Island riot caused fire

Hidden from mainland eyes

“When you send people to a remote facility for the express purpose of isolating them from their supports, this will inevitably be the result,” Australian OPCAT Network coordinator Steven Caruana told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“How many more riots before they close this place down for good?” he further asked.

Caruana is well versed in the hardship people face in these centres, as he’s a former immigration detention inspector.

And these days, he’s assisting in the rollout of the independent OPCAT inspection system that aims to rule out human rights abuses in facilities like Christmas Island.

The North West Point facility has long had a reputation for being the harshest installation within the Australian onshore immigration detention regime. And its remoteness and inaccessibility leads to a lack of accountability around what transpires within its barbed wire fences.

When prime minister Scott Morrison closed down the costly centre in October 2018, it came as a surprise to few. However, early the following year, when he reopened it – as part of a dummy spitting performance over parliament passing the Medevac laws – many were taken back a little.

Christmas Island riot

Double punishment

The Coalition began warehousing noncitizens slated for deportation on the island, as international borders were closed for the pandemic and the numbers within mainland facilities were increasing as other future deportees were steadily being released from prison and placed in detention.

This proliferation of noncitizen detainees is down to the Abbott government having altered section 501 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), so that the character test it contains requires noncitizens automatically be deported after being sentenced to at least 12 months prison time.

This 12 month limit is cumulative – meaning multiple short sentences apply – and it replaced a 24 month stipulation that was in place prior to the late 2014 changes.

And despite Peter Dutton’s claims that the character test deportation scheme is ridding our country of paedophiles and hardened criminals, it’s more often leading to the deportation of people for multiple minor offences.

Many deportees have been long-term residents of this country, with some going back as far as infancy. These deportees often have no support within or connection to the country they’re being sent to. And the vast majority of those turfed out have been New Zealanders.

House fire as riot continues

In our name

During footage capturing Wednesday’s riot, a man can be heard to remark, “Now they’re burning the detention centre down. Arab people, white people, African people are sick and tired of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison – the prime minister of Australia – treating us like a dog”.

The riot was brought to an end later on that same day, with a special response team being sent out to help quell unrest.

National Justice Project director George Newhouse said in a statement following, that “this latest incident is the result of isolation and up to 22 hours of being locked inside compounds with no access to green space and miserable conditions of detention”.

However, the misery of Christmas Island isn’t reserved for noncitizens. As the compounds were burning, the Biloela family was continuing to be detained on another part of the island.

The Biloela family consists of two adult Tamil parents – who arrived in Australia by boat close to a decade ago and have since lived in Queensland for a number of years – and their two Australian-born infant daughters.


Yes, that’s right, 5-year-old Kopika and 3-year-old Tharunicaa were born whilst their parents were living as part of a central Queensland community, and the pair have now spent their third Christmas in Australian immigration detention thanks to our dear leaders.

While refugee rights advocate Claire Gomez told us from Melbourne last week that supporters down there hold grave fears that the 180-odd former offshore asylum-seeking detainees now held in hotels on the mainland might soon be sent to Christmas Island.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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