Christmas Island: Australia's Unilateral Decision on the Coronavirus Quarantine Fuels Islanders's Demand for more Voice in Local Matters
The Australian government did not consult with residents of Christmas Island on its decision to revive a detention centre as quarantine for 270 potential carriers of the coronavirus. Locals claim they should have been asked on this matter, criticizing that the island’s image already suffers from the centre since it was a remote detention for immigrants. As tourism will likely become the main industry, such negative images can be detrimental for the local economy. However, Australia’s unilateral act also highlights residents’ lack of voice in decisions regarding their own land. It comes as no surprise that people on Christmas Island desire greater autonomy and more control over local governance.
Below is article published by The Guardian
There is disquiet over the decision to quarantine Wuhan evacuees on an island that thought it had left behind its prison image.
“We are a colony. That’s how we are treated.”
In 22 years on this island, Gordon Thomson, president of Christmas Island shire and head of the island’s workers’ union, has fought and lost too many battles with the Commonwealth of Australia for diplomatic niceties.
“The Commonwealth is all-powerful on this island, and they are exerting all of their authority to run this operation,” he says of the latest incarnation of the island’s immigration detention centre, as a quarantine station for Australians evacuated from the global centre of the coronavirus – Wuhan in China.
“The whole world is looking at Australia and seeing again that people are being incarcerated on Christmas Island. It’s a hysterical response, and it’s going to be ruinous to our tourist industry.”
Thomson may be firebrand in his rhetoric. But he is not alone in his sentiment. Through Christmas Islanders runs a streak of independence.
Born perhaps of a community forged in isolation, a colonial history that saw Malay and Chinese workers brought to work on British-run mines in the late 19th century, those who now live on Australia’s most remote inhabited territory have a keen sense of their own island identity, one keenly distinct from that on “the mainland”.
CI has its own number plates, its own robber crab road signs, its own time zone.
Ever-present here is a sense of being separate ... even separatist.
The island itself rises imperiously from the waters of the Indian Ocean, sharp green hills of dramatic rock escarpment dripping in dense and unforgiving forest. Human settlement clings, almost apologetically, to the narrow edges. It is a land dominated by nature not by humankind.
Hidden at the farthest point of the island is the Australian government’s immigration detention centre, repurposed this week as a quarantine facility, housing 270 Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been evacuated from Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province, the centre of the global coronavirus epidemic. More could yet join.
Before Thursday, the centre had fallen into a something of a torpor: staffed by more than 100 people, it housed the loneliest asylum seekers in Australia’s arcane system: the Murugappan family – Nades, Priya and their Australian-born children Kopika and Tharunicaa – far from their home in Biloela, Queensland as they await a court hearing on the mainland.
A surprising number of islanders told Guardian Australia they’ve never been to or seen the centre, but, to the outside world, the immigration detention centre has become almost representative, almost definitional: the one thing that is known about Christmas Island.
The immigration detention centre is absent from day-to-day life on Christmas Island, the remotest part of an already remote part of the world. But while the island and the centre are separate, they are almost inextricably bound.
VIRUS ISLAND, the front page of the West Australian screamed in 100-point type the morning the first planeload of evacuees touched down. The reaction on Christmas Island was apoplectic. Local message boards lit up in furious response.
“Very, very unfair,” a Malay woman who has lived for decades on Christmas Island tells Guardian Australia, declining to give her name because of employment sensitivities.
“Other people are angry that our island is being used for this. I don’t mind that the detention centre is being used: these people are Australian and we have got to help them. I’ve got children and I can imagine if my children were stuck there. But to make it sound like the whole island has coronavirus, that it’s all of us, hurts us. We love our island.”
At the Halal cafe in Flying Fish Cove, David Chan says the detention centre is, again, dominating life on Christmas Island.
“Everyone on this island is talking about it. What should I do, should I be worried, do I need to be worried for my children? We don’t know.”
“People are not happy about this. The Australian government just does whatever it wants to us, it never asks us what we want.”
Chan stresses too that islanders are happy to help, to play their part in Australia’s response to the virus. He says the island bears no ill will to those brought here for quarantine (people of Chinese origin are the largest population group on Christmas Island). He just wishes the island had been asked.
There is also a sense of yet further unthinking insensitivity. It is the tail end of the crab migration season here and hundreds of crabs remain on the roads. Islanders have been upset to find that convoys to the detention centre have run over up to half a dozen of the island’s famous robber crabs – far rarer than the red crabs and which are legally protected – and can live for up 80 years.
But the disquiet over the latest imposition of federal government policy on the island community comes with a wearied resignation, a recognised powerlessness.
“They have the power to do what they like, I just wish they would tell us, talk to us,” says Othman Dardak, a former councillor and member of the Islamic council of the island.
“As Christmas Islanders, we have no voice in what happens to our own island, our own land.”
He says he worries for the reputation of the island, both in Australia and internationally. In the years following 2001, when immigration detention began on the island, the island was shorthand for Australia’s toxic political debate around asylum seekers and refugees: now it is known for the coronavirus.
“We are all happy here, we are living a good life, but for people outside, all they know is detention centre and now coronavirus.”
Across the island, Guardian Australia is told there has been little communication from the federal government about what is happening on their island, and how concerned, if at all, they should be.
A flyer posted at the Christmas Island recreation centre says “engagement with the Christmas Island community is an important part of planning” for the quarantine regime.
“The government is focused on helping these Australians as quickly as possible … as Christmas Island residents, your support is greatly appreciated.”
The administrator of the island, former federal Liberal MP Natasha Griggs, has said in correspondence with the shire: “I understand the Christmas Island community is concerned about plans to establish coronavirus quarantine activities on island for Australians travelling from Wuhan/Hubei … please rest assured that the Christmas Island community will be provided updates and further information as it comes to hand.”
In previous incarnations of the detention centre – when it housed several hundred asylum seekers and others and its operation was fiercely controversial – former administrators held regular public meetings at the island’s tiny courthouse.
That hasn’t happened this time. Local government is being excluded too, Thomson says.
Usually, Christmas Island shire has responsibility for managing waste from the detention centre. When the shire inquired what it should do during the quarantine period, it was told simply waste would be “managed by the Department of Defence in line with guidance from the Department of Health”.
But the anxiety over the coronavirus quarantine feeds, too, into a broader concern about the future of the island.
Phosphate mining remains the major industry on the island – yellow and blue high-vis shirts dominate backs and clotheslines all over – but as production winds down, including a months-long shutdown last year and this, the industry counts its future in years, not decades.
The question is being asked: “What next does this island do?”
Tourism is the obvious answer. The remote beauty of the island, its forests, snorkelling and the red crab migration, are all attractions, but the detention centre, hidden away at the end of the island, somehow looms large still.
“For years this place was known as an island of incarceration. We were emerging from that and, while this is short-term and the reasons are different, again, all that people are hearing about Christmas Island is people being incarcerated again,” Thomson says.
He argues Christmas Island is a non-self-governing territory and should be placed in the United Nations of those territories that have the right to a vote on independence.
He believes there is significant support across the island for a “free association” with Australia, as the Marshall Islands do with the US, and Tokelau with New Zealand – a political arrangement which would give the island greater autonomy and control over its own land.
“That way, we’d have a say in what happens here.”
Photo by Richard Wainwright/EPA