ABF defends Christmas Island reopening on Twitter, AHRC ‘deeply concerned’

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 5, 2020

The AHRC calls on the government to release priority groups from closed immigration detention. (Adobe/elmar gubisch)

The Australian Border Force has taken to social media to defend its decision to reopen the detention centre on Christmas Island after media outlets reported that refugees and asylum seekers could be moved to the facility.

The ABF on Tuesday evening released a statement clarifying the decision, noting that COVID-19 measures have “curtailed” the process of removing “unlawful non-citizens” from Australia, which has in turn led to overcrowding in detention centres.

“To relieve capacity pressure across the detention network in Australia, detainees will be temporarily transferred to the immigration detention facility at North West Point on Christmas Island in the weeks ahead,” the agency said.

“The cohort being transferred consists of those who have been convicted of crimes involving assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences. This cohort is detained because of their risk to the Australian community.”

The ABF noted that the North West Point facility was used earlier this year as a quarantine centre for Australians who had been evacuated from Wuhan. It said it was working with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communication and Western Australian authorities to implement quarantine measures for service providers and staff headed to the island.

The following day, ABF staff spent the morning responding to tweets from human rights groups regarding the reopening of Christmas Island.

In a video posted by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the group’s director of advocacy and campaigns, Jana Favero, said “Christmas Island is a completely inappropriate place to send people seeking asylum and refugees”, and called for the government to release such people into the community to keep them safe.

In response to the video, the ABF said the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre was “making assumptions”.

The ABF directed two tweets towards Amnesty International Australia, stating again that no refugees would be transferred to the island. The first was to flag that an “incorrect” statement had been released by the organisation. The second was in response to a tweet in which Amnesty’s refugee coordinator, Graham Thom, noted the federal government has “in the past allowed almost 900 refugees into the community after being medically evacuated… There is no reason why this solution shouldn’t also be an option for these refugees”.⁦

The Human Rights Law Centre tweeted a quote from its legal director David Burke, who argued that “by reopening detention facilities on a remote island, thousands of kilometres from specialist medical care, [Home Affairs] Minister [Peter] Dutton has chosen a dangerous and cruel response to a public health crisis”.

In response, the ABF said:

“International Health and Medical Services is contracted to provide onsite primary (medical) and mental health clinics. Where the service is not available in the facility on Christmas Island it can be facilitated through visiting specialists or referral to the Australian mainland.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission on Wednesday made a similar argument regarding the reopening of the facility during a pandemic, stating it was “deeply concerned”.

“Christmas Island is remote, with limited access to facilities and services, especially for people who are vulnerable or have been detained for long periods of time,” human rights commissioner Edward Santow said in a statement.

“The human rights risks of immigration detention at Christmas Island are even greater in the current pandemic as there is only limited medical care available on the Island. An outbreak of COVID-19 could be catastrophic for the people in detention, staff and the community there.”

Referring to advice from the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control, and in acknowledgement of the ABF’s reasoning for transferring detainees, the commission called for people in immigration detention facilities who don’t pose a security risk to be released into community detention.

“Infectious diseases experts have advised that those immigration detainees who do not pose a significant security or health risk should be released into housing in the community. The commission supports this recommendation,” Santow said.

“We do not support the removal of detainees to Christmas Island as a solution to overcrowding in immigration detention.”

The ABF has not yet responded to the AHRC.

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