Christmas messaging

The pictures released by Peter Dutton’s office show broken glass and charred walls. Two men appear to brandish a flare. Drone footage shows buildings well alight.

These are the first images out of the Christmas Island detention centre in years, and The Saturday Paper has decided not to publish them. The reason is simple: they are propaganda.

For the most part, it is relentlessly difficult to get information from the minister on offshore detention. Questions are ignored or answered in a bureaucratic patois devoid of fact. Access is impossible. Secrecy is the cancer of this system.

But on the question of rioting on Christmas Island this week, Dutton was everywhere.

He spoke to Paul Murray: “In terms of Christmas Island – because I do think that people conjure up this view about boat people when they think of Christmas Island detention centre – it’s not that anymore.”

To Ray Hadley: “If they’re on visas and they fail the character test then we’ve cancelled their visa on that basis. So we’re talking about some pretty serious characters here.”

To ABC News Radio: “The government has been very clear about the fact that we have a hardened population within Christmas Island immigration detention centre.”

To Sky News: “Officers obviously make professional judgements about the individual cases and they will look at whether or not, for example, somebody off a boat has sexually assaulted somebody out in the community. And that person would be treated then the same as anybody else who may have committed that sexual assault or grievous bodily harm, or whatever the nature of the crime may have been.”

Dutton’s purpose is not difficult to ascertain. He wants to persuade the public that the people on Christmas Island are child abusers and bikies, that they are hardened criminals. He told Hadley 113 people in the centre had been charged with “serious criminal offences”. But that leaves 86 who had not been. They are the people Dutton does not talk about.

Fazel Chegeni was not among this number. He was already dead.

Chegeni was on Christmas Island at the minister’s discretion. There was no question about whether Chegeni was a refugee. He had been tortured in the country of his birth, a member of Iran’s Kurdish minority. His body was scarred with these facts.

Chegeni was deemed unfit for community release after a one-minute argument in the mess of Curtin detention centre, which led to an assault charge and a good-behaviour bond.

No court found him a risk to the community. But in the four years since he arrived by boat seeking asylum, he had been free only six months.

After the death of his sister, he had twice threatened suicide. Instead of being offered help, he was pushed further into the byzantine architecture of our detention system. From Brisbane to Darwin and finally to Christmas Island.

Chegeni’s death ignited the rioting on Christmas Island, which caused what Dutton says is $10 million worth of damage. But we have not been told what caused Chegeni’s death. Dutton has not said, and in only a few interviews was he actually asked.

Much easier to talk about law and order, to demonise a population on a distant island, far from the scrutiny of the press. Much easier to release pictures of burnt-out rooms than to talk about the, in some cases, innocent people held in them.

Once the federal police regained control of the centre, one of their first actions was to confiscate mobile phones. The brief flow of information again stopped.

“Our job,” Dutton said this week, “is to make sure that people that have had their visas cancelled because of character failures or where they’ve committed serious criminal offences – they’ve had their visas cancelled and they’re held in detention – our responsibility is to return them to their country of origin as quickly as possible.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "Christmas messaging".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.