Letters From Christmas Island

Inside Christmas Island, Anxiety Builds as the Centre's Closure Looms

As detainee Leo Jai writes, the men held there have no idea where they will go next.

by Leo Jai
09 April 2018, 1:59am

Image via Shutterstock

Leo Jai is currently detained in Australia's Christmas Island detention centre. Each week, he writes a dispatch for VICE from the inside. You can read his others here.

There’s word going around the Christmas Island detention centre that the place will close as of June 30th. For the 330-odd detainees held on the tiny island off Australia’s north-west coast, the news could mean relocation back to the mainland facility. And you’d think this would be cause for excitement, but instead the closure has been met, almost universally, with jaded cynicism.

That’s because there’s no guarantee any detainee will be moved to a centre near their family. Many of us have already been pushed from pillar to post, from facility to facility, at the whim of immigration. Some haven’t seen our loved ones for years.

With the closure date looming, scant rumours and secondhand news is everywhere. Word filters through from a monthly detainee meeting with Border Force that a relocation program is being prepared—but we’re never told anything about when this will happen, or where people will be assigned. The mind struggles to find some coping mechanism; some glimmer of hope it can cling to. In prison, when things get dark and despairing, you can at least hunker down and tell yourself that in x months or weeks or years you will be free.

Not here. On Christmas Island, hope is in short supply.

And even when that day of “freedom” comes, it may well mean boarding a plane with just 20 kilograms of luggage to be returned to the country of your birth, a place you haven’t lived since you were a kid. A place you have no memories of. Far from the people you love.

I keep my own routine here inside the detention centre. When your life is pretty much in the hands of others, routine gives you some small sense of comfort and control. I wake up early and find my way around the room quietly in the dark. Like most others here I share a tiny room with another detainee. I scale down from my top bunk in three practiced moves. My roomie sleeps on, undisturbed.

Outside, I draw a deep breath of air—the cramped compound 50 of us are locked into for almost 22 hours a day is cool and still. It won’t last long, so I make the most of it; quickly crossing the 10-metre span of grass to the computer room to check my emails. No news on my case.

Last week, on the walk back to my room, I noticed a fellow detainee named Ed, sitting at a table in the small wire-mesh enclosed veranda area. He was crying, weeping really, as he read a set of lyrics that he’d printed off in large font on a series of pages.

It was coming up to his daughter Sia’s 14th birthday, and he'd been granted a 30-minute Skype video session to talk to her. As a gift, he was planning to play the song “Butterfly Kisses” for her, holding up each page of lyrics, Bob Dylan-style. He invited me to sit down and listen with him. The song is about a father’s love for his daughter. Together, we cried quietly through it.

The distress of separation from family in detention, on top of the constant anxiety of not knowing one’s fate, affects different people in different ways inside Christmas Island. Some internalise it. Others are fractious and quick to anger. The sheer numbers of detainees presenting at the daily medical check for antidepressants and sleeping tablets is sobering. Self harm becomes a release for some, as the months turn into years.

It bothers me just how normalised the sight of a self harming detainee has become in here. I’ve seen a broken man touch antiseptic cream to angry red slashes down his forearms. I’ve seen scars so deep they will never disappear. But physical scars are one thing. Whether the emotional scarring will ever heal when this nightmare is said and done, that’s another question.


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Ed is one of those people who carries his scars mentally and emotionally; keeping the tears hidden as best they can. I guess I fall into that category too, if I’m being honest. We became friends when Ed first arrived on Christmas Island, maybe 10 months ago now. He was struggling, bitterly depressed and missing his family. I kept an eye on him—chatting to fill the silence, to keep his spirits up.

I will never forget one morning when he didn’t surface from his single room. I asked around the Christmas Island compound, checking whether the other detainees had seen him. Nobody had. I went to his door, knocked furiously, but drew no response. My guts knotted with fear. I headed to the compound office to ask the guards to investigate, but spotted him on the way. He had been at an early medical appointment.

Relief!

That is the grim reality of this place.

Ed dotes on his family and beams with pride at the achievements of his young son and daughter as they grow up, far away from him. They have written endless letters of support to the government, begging their father be allowed to come home. Beautiful, eloquent letters for kids so young. Their love for him and their pain is palpable. His wife struggles, working two jobs to support the family in Ed’s absence.

There is a “Visit Centre” here on Christmas Island, should visitors wish to make use of it. The family unit, officials are quick to stress, is very important. But the isolation of this remote island detention centre means no one’s family ever visits. No partner, struggling to cover the bills like Ed’s wife, could dream of affording the trip—the single weekly flight that comes in from Perth.

Happy birthday, Sia. On this day, know that your dad’s love for you is too strong to be contained by this dark injustice. But it won’t always be this way.

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