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Christmas Island Wants to Be More Than a Bin for Refugees

That, and they're sick of Australia controlling everything they do. Some residents are even pushing for secession.
January 20, 2016, 12:00am

Christmas Island detention centre. Image via.

Perhaps it's because the island has become our dumping ground for unwanted refugees. Or perhaps it's because we don't give them much of a say in how they're governed. Either way, the resident of Christmas Island want to secede from Australia.

First, some facts: Christmas Island sits nearly 2000 kilometres from the northern end of Western Australia. It's more of an Indonesian island than an Australian one, but it's been ours since we took it off the United Kingdom in 1958. The British had settled it in 1888, bringing in many indentured workers from China, Singapore, and Malay to mine its reserves of phosphate. But by the late 1950s the UK was more than happy to pass it on, given it was much closer to the antipodean nation than to mother England.

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With Christmas Island now synonymous with the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, it's little wonder that its lack of sovereignty has become a point of contention. But to understand Christmas Island, you need to understand the unnecessarily complicated system by which it is governed. Let us break it down for you.

The island is part of the Federal seat of Lingiari, which is basically all of the Northern Territory, except that the island is considered part of Western Australia. Confused?

Christmas Island is a non-self-governing island that is part of Australia. Everyone on the island lives under Australian law, but only residents who also happen to be Australian citizens can actually vote. The island is part of the Federal seat of Lingiari, which is basically all of the Northern Territory, except that the island is considered part of Western Australia. Confused? It gets better.

Even though it receives services from the state of WA, the Federal Department of Transport and Regional Service administers the island. Or at least it did until 2007, because after that it was administered by the Attorney-General's Department. Or at least it did until 2010, because after that it was administered by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. So, essentially, WA provides the services to Christmas Island but the Federal Government picks up the bill. Hang on, there's more.

Christmas Island operates under Western Australian laws, but not all of them. The relevant act states that "the law of Western Australia … are in force in the Territory so far as they are capable of applying in the Territory". Which essentially means that the state laws apply, except for the times they don't.

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It's not unreasonable that Christmas Islanders should wonder what the fuck is going on.

Attitudes among the resident of Christmas Island appear to have changed in the past 15 years, and a lot of that has to do with refugees. In 2001, temporary housing was built on the island for asylum seekers. The housing was almost immediately found to be inadequate, and so the Australian Government announced plans to build a big, new facility. This one would have the capacity to house 1200 people. By 2003, the construction of the centre was expanded for 1600 people. By 2009, the capacity was increased to 1800, and then, two years later, to 2040.

In 2013, the facility held 2960 asylum seekers. Although that number has dropped significantly in the last year or so, Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson told SBS News that practically everyone on the island believes Australia is running the island "for its own interests," citing a lack of consultation and the manner in which the government deals with the island's citizens.

Christmas Islanders have been buffeted around by the whims of the Australian government for years. In 2001, Australia flagged Christmas Island as the site for an exciting new satellite spaceport, which some anticipated would bring millions as communications companies launched satellites through the new millennium. The first launch was expected to take place in 2004. Over a decade later, there is no spaceport, and plans to refurbish the island's resort (which closed in 1998) were scrapped. According to "Christmas Island: Remote No More," an essay by Ee Tian Heng and Vivian Louis Forbes in the 2006 book Australia's Arc of Instability, the Shire complained to the Australian government about its "paternalistic handling of the Islanders' lives", calling the government's sudden legislation against the resort and casino "a blow that smacked of betrayal". It made little difference.

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In 2016, the desire for independence has not gone away. Christmas Island councillors are considering holding a referendum within three years, allowing residents to determine how they will be governed.

What would this mean for Australia? And by "Australia", I obviously mean "Australia's desire to keep refugees as far away from us as is physically possible"?

For that, we turn—as we so frequently do—to Minister for Immigration and Witchfinder General, Peter Dutton. The High Court is currently considering the legality of Australia's offshore detention policy. If the process is found to be illegal, then the 600-plus people held in Nauru and the 900-plus people held at Manus will have to be relocated. As they're in no danger of being processed any time soon, that means they will almost certainly be taken to Christmas Island. And Dutton has already started setting up a guest bedroom.

Preparations are underway to expand the Christmas Island detention centre in the event that the case is lost. And if Christmas Island becomes the only location outside of the mainland to house asylum seekers, then what happens if the residents suddenly take matters into their own hands?

In reality, very little. What Christmas Islanders appear to want is not complete autonomous independence, but a chance to actually have a say in their own governance. That they have not been afforded that opportunity already is a sticking point in more way than one.

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Many Christmas Islanders have been voicing concerns to their local authorities about the level of Australia's control. According to SBS, the island's Chief Executive Kelvin Matthews is conducting a thesis into the island's governance, and is surveying the residents to discover what not just how many demand more control over their home, but what form they expect that control to take.

With a population just over 2000, it's highly unlikely that the island will want to take its own infrastructure and maintenance costs on, and so a deal with Australia will undoubtedly remain in place. If Australia loses the High Court ruling—and even if it doesn't—it will be determined to keep Christmas Island's centre operating for as long as is possible.

Assuming all of these changes go ahead, Christmas Island could look very different five years from now. More autonomy could mean a change in how elections are conducted, and give citizens significantly more power over what Australia can and cannot do. Unless there is a seismic shift in Australian policy, we will continue to detain asylum seekers in the thousands. If Christmas Island is the only offshore facility operating by then, we may end up dangling a very big carrot to keep the island's citizenry happy.

No matter what, Christmas Island is in for some very big changes.

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