Christmas Island overloaded

There are too many people being detained at the Christmas Island immigration detention facilities and the current scale of operations on the geographically remote island are not sustainable.

This is the underlying message in the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report based on observations during two years of periodic inspection visits, examination by this office of the Refugee Status Assessment (RSA) processes and investigation of complaints received from detainees.

When Ombudsman staff first visited the Christmas Island immigration detention facilities in October 2008, 32 people were detained there out of a nominal operational capacity of 744.

By the time this report was finalised and eight Ombudsman inspection visits later, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) advised there were some 2757 people awaiting processing of claims, two thousand more than the facilities were designed to accommodate. This is being managed through measures such as the use of marquee dormitories to increase ‘contingency accommodation capacity’ up to 2584 beds.

‘There is little doubt that resources have been sorely stretched as the facilities have sought to accommodate a continued increase in numbers of people seeking refuge in Australia, including families and unaccompanied minors. Christmas Island is overloaded.

‘The increase in numbers has created a difficult and challenging situation, for both DIAC and Serco who manage the detention services operations on DIAC’s behalf at Christmas Island.

‘We remain concerned about timeliness in processing refugee applications, delays in security agency clearances and various health issues—particularly those related to mental health,’ said Allan Asher.

The Ombudsman welcomed news that a heavy backlog of torture and trauma cases has been cleared, however there remains a shortage of health services in general.

Other recommendations in the Ombudsman’s report relate to the lack of appropriate accommodation, education and recreation activities, the need more and correct interpreters, and providing community detention on mainland Australia—especially for unaccompanied minors, families with children, and people who have received positive refugee assessments but who are awaiting security clearances.

‘On the whole, DIAC has managed the Christmas Island immigration detention facilities as well or better than can be expected, but the current scale of the operation on Christmas Island is not sustainable,’ said Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher.

DIAC welcomed the Ombudsman’s report and its role in providing independent oversight. The Ombudsman acknowledges DIAC’s responsiveness to periodic reports, willingness to accept advice, learn from mistakes and make improvements.

‘However, despite DIAC’s efforts, the stage has been reached where Christmas Island is overloaded. Simply put, there are too many people,’ said Allan Asher.

Whether the solution is to make use of facilities on the Australian mainland is a policy decision for Government to make. However, the Ombudsman is concerned that attempting to manage more facilities with the same resources in geographically diverse areas potentially brings with it other problems not least of which is ensuring the presence of adequate infrastructure and mental health services.

Download the report: Christmas Island Immigration Detention Facilities: Report on the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman’s oversight of immigration processes on Christmas Island, October 2008 to September 2010, February 2011—02|2011

Media contact: Shaun Rohrlach, Director of Public Affairs 0408 861 803 or 02 6276 3710

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Date of release: 2 February 2011