It should be one of Australia’s premier tourist destinations – a remote Indian ocean island with beautiful palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs, turquoise waters and fascinating wildlife.
Instead, Christmas Island has made its name as a notorious prison, home to a sprawling detention centre, purpose-built and razor-wired – and which holds just four occupants, two of them small children.
Sri Lankans Priya, Nades and their two bright-eyed toddlers captured hearts and minds in 2018 when Australian authorities grabbed the family from their home in a dawn raid in the Queensland town of Biloela, and sent them to a detention centre in Melbourne. In August 2019 they were dramatically loaded onto a plane to be deported to Sri Lanka, only to be grounded by a mid-air court injunction. Instead the government sent them to Christmas Island, 2,600km from the Australian mainland, far from advocates, lawyers, healthcare, friends and supporters.
In the peak years of Australia’s offshore detention program the centre held thousands of people.
It was controversially reopened in March 2019, then closed again just weeks later, having cost $185m without a single person being detained. Tens of millions of dollars more have been spent, and more than 100 people employed, to detain and guard the Biloela family. Four people sleeping in one bed, in a centre with scores of buildings.
Tampa, hunger strikes and a prime ministerial visit
Christmas Island has existed as a place of detention in evolving forms of purpose and severity since the turn of the century. Far from the Australian mainland but close to Indonesia, it has been a target destination for people travelling by boat to claim asylum on Australian soil.
There have been riots at the detention centre, and there have been deaths.
The expansion, then closure and subsequent reopening of the centre has played havoc with the island’s economy and angered residents, who are sick of it, says the island’s mayor, Gordon Thomson.
“If you’re a planner you would say ‘close the fucking detention centre, knock it over, turn it into a chook farm, and never ever open it again’,” he says.
“Because planners like an even keel. [The up and down] is what we’ve had forever and we hate it.”
Thomson, who is also general secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers and a Labor party member, describes himself as an advocate for the residents, and acknowledges there have been a variety of opinions over the years.
In the early 2000s the island’s residents wanted a dual purpose facility built which would be used to process asylum seekers and for recreation purposes, he recalls.
But then, in 2001, came the Tampa.
Thomson says he was among those calling for the 438 asylum seekers picked up by the Norwegian freighter to be brought ashore, but instead the Howard government embarked on its infamous standoff, which led to the closure of the island’s port.
“At the time, getting people to support a rally there were two things – we wanted the port opened and for the refugees to land,” Thomson says.
“It was about human rights and our responsibility to uphold them, not about the economy. But there was not universal support for that position.”
What Thomson describes as the Howard government’s “highly authoritarian shit” escalated over the following years. A high-security facility was built, and Christmas Island was excised from the mainland’s migration zone.
In 2010, 48 people died when their asylum boat smashed against the rocks.
From 2011 to 2015 there were a series of incidents including protests, hunger strikes, and riots, and detainee levels far above capacity. Iranian asylum seeker Faizel Chegani escaped over the fence and took his own life, and conditions for asylum seekers became even more restrictive.
The island’s tourism industry was all but destroyed.
Eventually the centre emptied out and in 2018 it was put in “hot contingency” – essentially closed, but with a staff of about 12 ready to reopen at a moment’s notice.
Less than five months later that moment came, amid a new round of boat-related rhetoric. Its reanimation was accompanied by the first-ever prime ministerial visit to the island, dismissed as a galling PR stunt.
Mainland Serco guards were offered secondments at inflated pay, health staff were hired for a new medical centre that would be off limits to island residents, whose health system is so under-resourced that complex fractures and childbirth cases are sent to the mainland.
But no one came.
The $26m detention centre with 109 staff and four detainees
The only people were and remain Nades, Priya, Kopika and Tharunicaa, under the watch of 109 taxpayer-funded staff.
The current chapter has cost $26.8m since the centre was melodramatically reopened in February 2019 to prepare for the hordes of people the government said it would be forced to deal with because of the medevac laws.
Those laws – which enabled doctors to have sick refugees and asylum seekers transferred to Australia for care or assessment – have been repealed. No one was ever sent to Christmas Island, except the Biloela family.
Despite promises to close the centre after the repeal, the government has signed a three-year $20m contract with an island-based mining firm to run the centre, as Guardian Australia revealed last year.
The former Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope described the contract as a “patently political decision”.
“It was designed to make the prime minister and the home affairs minister look tough on asylum seekers, and it was designed to wedge the Labor party, which it does successfully because the Labor party is so weak and conflicted on the issue.”
The slow process of the Biloela family’s final court hearings is now under way, but the government refuses to take them back to Melbourne and so they remain inside a low-security wing under the watch of 96 body camera-wearing Serco personnel, nine medical workers, and two officers from Australian Border Force.
The UN has called for their release, but was ignored by Australia.
Speaking in broken English and through a translator, Priya says her husband and children are now in reasonable health, but she is finding their circumstances very difficult.
“When I was moved from Melbourne the Serco officers, the way they handled me, I have bad pain on my shoulder and my neck. I’m finding it hard to sleep and finding it really painful,” she says.
“My neck, shoulder and one side of my face is very painful but the doctor here said they can’t do a CT scan here, so they just give me pain relief.
“That is really bothering me because now I can’t carry my children.”
The family share one queen-sized bed.
Asked what impact this has had on her relationship with Nades, Priya says she would like to answer the question.
“We don’t have any kind of a closeness as a husband and wife here because the situation with the rules is that all four of us are in one queen bed,” she says.
“So for months I have not slept next to my husband.”
Priya says they feel lonely.
“Even if we were in jail there would be other inmates we could talk to. Here there is no one.”
The two young girls have experienced several birthdays in detention, and separation from their only friend – a young Vietnamese toddler, Isabella, who was born in the Melbourne detention centre where the family has spent the last couple of years.
On Christmas Island her daughters play with leftover broken toys from when children were last detained there. They socialise a little with local children, but their time is restricted, and during school holidays they are not free to leave the centre. Priya says she has been told that is for insurance reasons.
“I did ask if they could go visit a friend’s place and come back, even if the guards were there but they refused and said it’s not safe to go,” she says.
“The school and the playgroup is government property. Unless it’s government property they won’t take us.”
Figures provided by the department reveal that by the time the family arrived on Christmas Island, $26.8m had already been spent on the reopened centre.
On top of the $26.8m spent reopening the centre, the family’s detention and legal costs have so far cost more than $4.5m, according to the department of home affairs.
Priya does not understand how the government could spend that much money just on their detention, and says she feels “sad” to hear the number.
“The life I am living and the situation and the room that I’m in – to spend $4.5m on setting up this detention centre with Serco officers and other people, they must be spending the money on them,” she says.
“The Serco officers keep changing every three or six weeks, so the transport for them and charter flights, they must be spending money on that. Because the way we are living I think we don’t even have the basics that we need.”