RIOT police are training daily in a jungle clearing on Christmas Island in preparation for the arrival of 54 asylum-seekers due to be deported to Malaysia.
Shortly after dawn yesterday, the group of about 20 Australian Federal Police from the public order management team practised near a Buddhist temple deep in the rainforest in full riot gear, including shields, shin and kneepads, helmets and batons.
The drills came as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees moved to distance itself from the controversial refugee swap, with its regional head in Australia, Ric Towle, saying it was “too early to say” whether the transferred asylum-seekers would be protected once in Malaysia.
“Nobody has test-run the arrangement in reality,” Mr Towle told The Australian yesterday. “I’m not able to speculate on that.”
Asked whether the deal carried the endorsement of the UNHCR, as both the Australian and Malaysian governments have suggested, Mr Towle replied: “We’re not signatories to the agreement.”
The UNHCR’s cool response came as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was unable to say who would run the immigration transit facilities that will house the detainees when they arrive.
Nor could Mr Bowen say how, or where, an asylum-seeker’s right to work would be codified in Malaysian law after they had been transferred from Australia.
The director of a leading Malaysian human rights group, Lawyers for Liberty, Renuka Balasubramaniam, said the Malay-language press packs dealing with the agreement made no mention of work rights. “It seemed to be only Bowen that was saying that,” Ms Balasubramaniam told The Australian yesterday. “The thing about how they will be given the right to work is a big question.”
In training yesterday, the AFP officers shouted phrases such as “get back” as they went through their drills, which included charging up an incline with batons above their shoulders.
The Christmas Island authorities have been told to expect children among the first asylum-seekers due to reach the Australian territory on Thursday aboard a Customs vessel.
Officers ordered to put the asylum-seekers on charter flights can use teargas, batons and beanbag bullets, in line with the rules about police use of force.
“Obeying instructions here is not a question of volunteering,” Julia Gillard said yesterday.
“People will be given an instruction to board a plane. We will be looking to people to obey that instruction. If it’s not obeyed, then we have security personnel, we have the Australian Federal Police, we also have counsellors available to talk things through with people.”
The Prime Minister said the government was “determined to get this done”.
“The Australian Federal Police can speak on operational matters, but we will do what is necessary to ensure people who are taken to Malaysia under the agreement are taken,” she said
There are 70 AFP officers on the island. Those on assignment to respond to detainee unrest are not allowed to drink alcohol and they keep fit with daily running.
The potential use of force on asylum-seekers who refuse to go to Malaysia has appalled the Coalition of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees and Detainees.
CARAD chair Rosemary Hudson Miler said she remembered forcible removals from the mid-2000s when detainees were offered and accepted sedatives.
The prospect of that happening again was alarming, she said, because it was widely understood that detainees in such stresssful situations were not in a position to give full and proper consent to taking a sedative.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship aims to remove the asylum-seekers quickly.
The AFP said the riot police were on the island to respond to unrest at the detention centre, as well as any resistance to the deportations to Kuala Lumpur.
“The AFP’s role is to provide security escort services during the flight from Christmas Island to Malaysia,” a spokesman said.
“Officers will be deployed to staging and departure areas to provide support to DIAC during the transport of people on to the aircraft – this is to ensure security and safety.”
The AFP’s security role will end at the door of the aircraft when it touches down in Malaysia.
From there, the responsibility for moving the asylum-seekers into transit facilities will rest with the Malaysians.