Osman Faruqi
Christmas Island and the rise of mandatory detention

While most political observers were focused on the leadership machinations playing out in the ranks of the Nationals and Greens on Monday, Australia’s director of human biosecurity issued the dryly named Biosecurity (Human Health Response Zone) (North West Point Immigration Detention Centre) Determination 2020.

The legal instrument designated the detention centre on Christmas Island a “human health response zone” – no one is allowed to enter the facility unless they have been sent there due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. At this stage, that refers to the 240 Australian citizens and permanent residents – including 84 children – who have been evacuated from Wuhan in China and sent to the remote island.

The instrument is vague. As to how long the quarantine orders will apply, it isn’t clear. The federal government has said evacuees will remain in detention for 14 days, but the quarantine orders are in force for three months, the longest possible period legally allowed. Within that window, no limit has been set for how long individuals can be detained.

This is the first time these particular quarantine provisions have been used.

Issued under the Biosecurity Act, which allows officials to declare any part of an Australian state or territory a “human health response zone”, the move has placed Christmas Island in a curious position. It is now considered an Australian territory, for the purposes of setting up a quarantined coronavirus camp, while simultaneously being excised from Australia’s migration zone, in order to limit asylum claims.

But since the Christmas Island detention centre was built to house asylum seekers as part of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, politicians have seen the value of the facility existing in a kind of legal purgatory. As a dumping ground for problems we don’t really want to solve.

In 2019, when the federal parliament passed the medevac legislation, the Morrison government decided to reopen the Christmas Island centre, following its closure just a year earlier, at a cost of about $180 million. Instead of travelling to mainland Australia for medical treatment, sick asylum seekers would instead be taken to Christmas Island.

The Christmas Island Shire Council president, Gordon Thomson, described the move as “stunning”, because the island’s hospital doesn’t have the facilities to treat serious medical problems. This makes the decision to send hundreds of Australians there, people who the government fears may be at risk of contracting a disease on track to be the world’s latest pandemic, all the more baffling.

When in doubt though, the government’s response is kneejerk – “Send them to Christmas Island” – from Tampa, to the Tamil family from Biloela in Queensland, to the current quarantine situation.

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Tony Bartone, has called for the government to implement a more “humane” solution and said quarantine should be possible on the mainland. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said that if Christmas Island reaches capacity, his proposed solution is to set up new centres in “isolated mining camps”.

The New Zealand government, which has also evacuated about 200 citizens and permanent residents – including Australians and Britons – from Wuhan, has said the group will be quarantined in a defence facility in North Auckland. Efforts will be made, according to NZ’s Health minister, David Clark, to ensure those quarantined will be able to “maintain as normal a life as possible while in isolation: working remotely, meeting education needs for children and providing for leisure activities”.

These are all opportunities unlikely to be afforded to those Australians quarantined on Christmas Island, 2000 kilometres north-west of Broome, Western Australia.

Canada, the United States and Germany have also evacuated hundreds of their citizens from Wuhan, quarantining them in military bases close to major cities and hospitals. France has quarantined citizens in a holiday town on the Mediterranean coast, while Japan hasn’t enforced a mandatory quarantine.

So, yet again, Australia finds itself in an exceptional, now familiar situation, detaining vulnerable human beings in remote offshore camps. Except this time, in place of asylum seekers, it is Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been shunted out of sight and mind.

Detaining people indefinitely doesn’t become any less humane because those detainees are citizens. The mandatory detention of asylum seekers was, and remains, a stain on Australia’s projection of itself to the world as an advanced democracy with a professed commitment to human rights.

It’s significant, though, that a militarised border regime designed to punish and deter foreign arrivals and admired by Donald Trump – “You are worse than I am,” the US president famously told Malcolm Turnbull of Australia’s offshore detention policy – has now been extended to capture Australian citizens.

And it’s crucial to understand how we arrived here, with little debate or backlash, and what it means for future crises or shock events like the coronavirus outbreak.

The current situation is the result of two distinct, but overlapping, forces at play in our polity. The first is the creation of Australia’s punitive border regime. Decades of bipartisan immigration policy have normalised the use of borders to punish and segregate people, largely on the basis of their country of birth or racial background.

From Keating’s introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 – introduced by the Immigration minister at the time as a “temporary measure” – to the rollout of the Pacific Solution, to the first Rudd government’s suspension of processing asylum applications from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, to the Gillard government’s reopening of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, to the second Rudd government’s edict that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia, to the Abbott government’s launch of Operation Sovereign Borders, the past three decades of Australian politics have been dominated by a slow but steady ratcheting up of border control, based on an irrational fear of being overwhelmed by migrants from the developing world.

The second force is the racism that has been a core component of Australian politics since invasion and colonisation in 1788. One could trace a line through the codification of the White Australia Policy in 1901, the Northern Territory “intervention” and the initial rise of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s and her resurgence in the past decade, bringing with it the election of a senator who called for a “final solution” on immigration and blamed Muslim migrants for being responsible for their own massacre.

And racism targeted towards Chinese Australians has been fervent in Australian culture for two centuries. In fact, when phosphate mining began on Christmas Island in the late 1800s, it was Chinese indentured labourers who were exploited by the British colony, with Chinese residents treated as second-class citizens. Chinese labourers were a regular target of racism throughout much of Australia’s colonial history, with the creation of anti-Chinese leagues leading to eventual immigration restrictions. When Chinese migration to Australia picked up again in the 1980s and ’90s, it was exploited by the likes of Hanson, who declared the country at risk of being “swamped by Asians”. And while the far right have largely shifted their focus to Muslim migrants, there has been a dangerous re-emergence of anti-Chinese rhetoric in politics, media and the community as anxiety about the power and influence of the Chinese government grows.

Much like fear of the coronavirus, concern about the policies of the ruthless dictatorship governing China is not unfounded. Yet it should be relatively easy to distinguish between the actions of a foreign government and the rights of Australians of Chinese origin. But a country with the kind of history Australia has, coupled with an ongoing unwillingness to acknowledge it, let alone confront it, makes that more difficult.

The coalescence of these two forces – Australia’s perfection of harsh border-control measures and a long-term anxiety towards migrants, particularly those from China – has created our present absurdity: the sequestering of Australian citizens in offshore detention, with almost no debate or discussion about the precedent being set or the long-term consequences.

Many Australians won’t feel comfortable acknowledging it, but the racial dynamic here is undeniable.

Can you imagine the public outcry, likely led by Sunrise and The Daily Telegraph, if white Australians stranded in Bali or Thailand were forcibly sent to an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island? The detention of Chinese Australians has happened so swiftly and without any backlash precisely because they are Chinese Australians.

When mandatory detention was introduced it was supposed to be “temporary”. Decades later it has evolved to become harsher and more punitive than ever. When the Christmas Island detention centre was built it was solely to house those who were arriving “illegally”, despite the fact there is no such thing. Two decades later, it is being used to quarantine citizens of Chinese heritage.

It is to Australia’s great shame that both our major parties continue to be electorally rewarded despite their flagrant breaches of international law as a result of their treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Not enough people, in politics or other powerful institutions, including the media, have spoken up, or spoken up early enough.

By using Chinese Australians as the guinea pigs for this new experiment in the expansion of our offshore containment and isolation regime, the government has all but ensured that, again, few people will speak up.

But global crises, such as the coronavirus outbreak, are only going to become more common. Climate change will be the catalyst for innumerable social, environmental and economic disasters that will reshape migration patterns. Our brutally effective border policies will be deployed, ruthlessly, not to protect “us” but what those in power have always defined as “us”. And when it comes to a question of borders, that still means just one thing: white Australians.

This country has spent the past three decades building its walls. Don’t be surprised if one day you find yourself trapped outside them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 8, 2020 as "Waiting to exile".

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

Osman Faruqi is a political journalist. He was the host of Schwartz Media's The Culture podcast and the editor of 7am until early 2022.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

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