Bad tidings on Christmas
11 December 1999
A tiny anachronism owned by Australia has become the front line against illegal immigration, and Colleen Egan finds the natives are restless
It is close to 5am on Christmas Island, the tiny dot of Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. A loud, humming loudspeaker atop a mosque is switched on and, after a slight cough, the Islamic call to prayer belts out across Flying Fish Cove at a volume that taxes the eardrums.
Malay locals wake up to say their prayers, while some of the more than 100 Iraqi illegal immigrants housed in the island's gymnasium kneel on their mats and face Mecca, bowed in the same prayer.
Above the cove, Chinese mine and office workers in Poon Saan, some of whom have donated clothes to a recent boatload of Chinese refugees, prepare to rise.
The 'European' locals in Settlement and Silver City, alive with debate on talkback radio about the influx of 'illegals', prepare for work at the island's construction sites, school and businesses.
It's an increasingly familiar day on Christmas Island, the small community that has become the front line of Australia's immigration war.
The high, jungle-covered island has long been a destination for boatpeople but the culturally unique population is now feeling the burden of the recent rise in numbers. The influx of Middle Eastern refugees is straining local resources and tugging at the seams of a delicate interracial fabric.
Complaints are mounting over 'favourable treatment' for seemingly well-off Iraqis and Iranians, the share of precious fresh food during shortages, inadequate police levels and a lack of basic services for locals. Stories about attempted bribes, arrogance and fussiness among the Middle Easterners who arrive in designer clothes on specially fitted boats are circulating in pubs and workplaces, feeding the anger.
A demand by the local Islamic Council two weeks ago that only food cooked in halal kitchens should be served to the Middle Eastern refugees has angered struggling European restaurant owners who used the 'refo meals' to prop up their businesses during hard times.
Othman Dardak, leader of the Islamic Council, defended the policy. 'It is our religious duty to ensure that they have halal food, we would feel guilty on their behalf if we did not do so.' The generally popular local police are undermanned, overworked and forced to fend against criticism from all sides. The use of the old, leaky town gymnasium to hold hundreds of people for up to two weeks at a time is raising concerns about hygiene and security. The basketball competition cannot get off the ground. Fears are surfacing over the security of an Australian territory so close to Indonesia, the departure country for the refugees. The locals feel the mainland is ignoring their plight and the problem is only going to get worse.
Christmas Island, the closest Australian community to Java -- less than a day by boat from Cilacap -- played host to 404 illegal non-citizens in November. In some ways, the boatpeople could not choose a better place to land: the small band of Australian Federal Police provide for the visitors' humanitarian and religious needs with an Immigration Department chequebook, and assistance is forthcoming from the dominant Chinese and Muslim Malay population.
The ethnic make-up of Christmas Island is vastly different from anywhere else in Australia: of the estimated 1400 people, the Chinese are in a majority with about 70 per cent, and the Malays and 'Europeans' -- mostly Australian mainlanders and New Zealanders -- make up the difference in fairly equal portions. While the Asian locals have residents' status, most choose not to take up Australian citizenship and many feel little association with the mainland. In the main, they consider themselves Malay Christmas Islanders and Chinese Christmas Islanders.
The Malay community, through a common religion and its generosity, is in the position of supporting the less popular refugees, who raise the ire of locals with their expensive clothes and gold jewellery.
Large numbers of Muslims are now arriving in well-fitted boats with expensive GPS, radio and other navigational equipment. Workers describe the recent boats as 'one-trip wonders' with new linoleum on the floors, new motors, generators and bilge pumps, and fuel tanks with 2000 litres of spare diesel. [emphasis added]
Superintendent Phil Spence, a generally popular police chief, was forced last week to defend himself over tales of spoiling the refugees with clothes, special food, children's toys and bottled water. 'The illegals are given bottled water ... for hygiene reasons at the request of medical staff,' he said in an open letter to the community.
'Yes, some $500 was spent purchasing toys for the children ... to be frank, the children were driving the police mad. Sixty-nine people were taken to the swimming pool to have a swim. These people, notwithstanding how they arrived on the island, are all human beings.'
Much of the current ire of Christmas Islanders, though, is not centred on race or religion. Theirs is a tropical isle with exquisite natural beauty and fauna, an inviting climate and rich tourist and population potential. Life is not easy in isolation, however, and most are frustrated with what they see as ignorance and intransigence from the Department of Territories, which makes the most significant decisions about the island.
Economic depression through the closure last year of the Christmas Island Resort Casino, which saw the population plummet by 1000, adds to the resentment over big expenditure on refugee accommodation and transport. The heat has risen in complex political debates on an island that voted at last month's referendum not only for a republic, but in a local plebiscite for autonomy from Canberra.
'This problem is indicative of the frustrations we feel about Canberra, because we are underfunded and under-resourced and they won't do anything about it,' says chamber of commerce vice-president Ed Turner. 'The Government will not accept that Christmas Island is in a region of poverty and persecution and we are going to be inundated with refugees for the next 50 years. Our concern is there is no plan, very little organisation. 'Last month they had five police plus special constables handling 180 people with no facilities in a dilapidated old hall. I went to the cafe for a hamburger and could only get a patty, a bun, sauce and some tinned beetroot.'
The chamber of commerce wants the Government to build a secure, temporary holding facility that can be used as a gymnasium when it is empty. On Christmas Island, 2300km from Perth, access is the biggest problem. It is often a difficult business trying to get on and off 'the Rock': flights to and from Perth are booked solid and the community airline, which usually flies thrice a week from Jakarta, is in crisis. The island also relies on the Jakarta run for mail and fresh fruit and vegetables, all of which were unavailable for three weeks last month.
It is in this climate that hundreds of boatpeople have been arriving with regularity. When they come, the supermarket is stripped of food and huge resources are expended on them. A Qantas 767 was chartered for a recent group's speedy departure from the island.
'We have been trying to get government help for the community airline, which local people started with their own money and we run ourselves, and they will not give us one cent,' Turner says. 'People cannot get on and off the island, and we miss out on mail and food.
'It's not surprising there is resentment.'