Regardless of how close a boat may have gotten to the mainland, the Australian authorities steer it to Christmas Island which remained uninhabited until about a century ago.

Deep in the remote jungle of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, Australia’s new $370 million refugee detention centre reaches its full power after its lights come on at dusk. Bracketed by rain forest, steep cliffs and the sea, it rises from the enveloping darkness and becomes visible from the island’s only inhabited corner, about 10 miles away.

The centre — opened a few days before Christmas but now nearly full with refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — has come to symbolise what many call one of Australia’s defining fears: the arrival of boat people from Asia.

All boat people seeking asylum in Australia are first brought here to Christmas Island, just over 350 kms south of Indonesia but over 1,600 kms from the Australian mainland, and most are now held at enormous cost within the centre’s electrified, 13-foot-high razor-wire fences.

But even as boats arrive every few days, advocates for refugees and even the government’s own human rights commission are urging the government to close the place down and sort the asylum-seekers on the mainland. They compare Christmas Island to Guantanamo Bay or describe it as a reincarnation of the many notorious prison islands in Australia’s convict history.

“They put this centre way out here on this remote island, and then they built it way, way, way out on the island in the jungle,” said Charlene Thompson, a social worker who counsels asylum-seekers here. She equated the new centre to Port Arthur, a 19th-century penal colony in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost island. “It’s a jail, a high-security jail, and it feels like the asylum-seekers are being treated as criminals.” The influx of boat people, which has swung elections in the past, has rattled the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a year before another election.

Recently, Mr. Rudd, accused by the opposition of being soft on illegal immigration, personally asked Indonesia’s President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to intercept a wooden cargo ship from Malaysia with 260 Sri Lankans bound for Australia.

If the Sri Lankans, now held in Indonesia, had been brought here, their numbers would probably have pushed the centre beyond its capacity of 1,200. That, in turn, could have forced the government to start processing the boat people on the mainland.

“I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia,” said Mr. Rudd, who had initially won praise from refugee advocates for reversing some of the harshest anti-immigration measures of his predecessor, John Howard, including charging asylum seekers for their stay in government facilities.

“Excision” policy

Mr. Rudd has continued to send boat people here for processing. He has also retained his predecessor’s “excision” policy, under which asylum-seekers on islands like this one are barred from the mainland’s refugee review system. At first reluctant to use the new centre, the symbol of his predecessor’s policies, Mr. Rudd housed the boat people in an older facility here.

But a surge of asylum-seekers late last year forced the authorities to start using the new centre. Nearly 2,000 boat people have been sent to Christmas Island this year. Currently, their numbers are believed to match the island’s local population of 1,100. The boat people constitute only about 10 per cent of all asylum-seekers to Australia, according to immigration officials, with most simply arriving by plane. What is more, the boat people are far more likely to be recognised as political refugees after their applications are reviewed over a period of three to four months here.

Nevertheless, the arrival of illegal boats filled with Asians evokes a primordial fear here, one that has been instilled over past decades of anti-Asian immigration policies and is still stoked by conservative politicians.

“There is considerable anxiety about people coming by boat and from the north,” said Bernadette McGrath, the director of Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service, who spent six months investigating the government’s treatment of refugees here. “It’s very deep in our psyche.”

So regardless of how close a boat may have gotten to the mainland, the Australian authorities first steer it to Christmas Island, linked to the mainland only by a four-hour flight to Perth, about 2,650 kms to the southeast, that operates four times a week. A supply ship docks here every five or six weeks. Newspapers are delivered 10 days late. The Internet remains costly and slow.

Named by a British navigator who spotted it on Christmas Day in 1643, the island remained uninhabited until about a century ago, when phosphate was discovered. The British brought indentured workers from Asia to Christmas Island, which became part of Australia half a century ago. Until the 1980s, the island was racially stratified, with white Australian managers overseeing Asian workers barred from whites-only neighbourhoods.

Boat people who were interviewed said they were surprised to find themselves on an island they had never heard of.

According to a recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, a government organisation, the new centre “looks and feels like a prison.” It called the security measures “excessive and inappropriate for accommodating asylum seekers.” Inside the main fence, the report said, each compound is enclosed in a separate fence, and walkways are “enclosed within cagelike structures.”

The Immigration Department rejected the commission’s recommendation to stop using Christmas Island for detention. It described the use of islands like this one as “essential components of strong border control.”

About 50 asylum-seekers, mostly families with children, have been permitted to stay in residential neighbourhoods on the island. Despite some local grumbling about the flood of boat people and immigration workers, the asylum-seekers said they felt welcomed.

“People here are all good,” said a 35-year-old Iranian man who was staying with his wife and two sons on a block with Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum-seekers, and whose refugee application had just been approved.

The other morning at a local public school that the refugees’ children attend daily, the young immigrants practised English composition, played polo hockey or baked chocolate chip cookies.

“The children’s knowledge of Australia is very limited,” said Mary Ford, 29, who began teaching here five months ago after moving from the mainland. “They wouldn’t know Australia’s cities.

“None of them have ever heard of Christmas Island. Most Australians haven’t. I didn’t know, geographically, where it was until I moved here. People kept asking me, ‘Christmas Island? Where’s that?’” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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