CHRISTMAS ISLAND: Deep in the jungle on this small island lost in the Indian Ocean, Australia’s new $370 million refugee detention center reaches its full power after its lights come on at dusk. Bracketed by rain forest, steep cliffs and the sea, it rises from the enveloping darkness and becomes visible from the island’s only inhabited corner, about 10 miles away.
The center — opened a few days before Christmas but now nearly full with refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — has come to symbolize what many call one of Australia’s defining fears: the arrival of boat people from Asia.
All boat people seeking asylum in Australia are first brought here to Christmas Island, just 220 miles south of Indonesia but nearly 1,000 miles from the Australian mainland, and most are now held at enormous cost within the center’s electrified, 13-foot-high razor-wire fences.
But even as boats arrive every few days, advocates for refugees and even the government’s own human rights commission are urging the government to close the place down and sort the asylum-seekers on the mainland. They compare Christmas Island to Guantánamo Bay or describe it as a reincarnation of the many notorious prison islands in Australia’s convict history.
The influx of boat people, which has swung elections in the past, has rattled the government of PM Kevin Rudd a year before another election. Recently, Rudd, accused by the opposition of being soft on illegal immigration, personally asked Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intercept a wooden cargo ship from Malaysia with 260 Sri Lankans bound for Australia. “I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia,” said Rudd.