Christmas Island - Eco tourism Mecca or prison island?

You won't find a sign post pointing you towards the Christmas Island Detention Centre, which probably reflects the local conflict over having it there at all.

Christmas Island Red Crab
Christmas Island Red Crab Source: Sunday

The people that live on this isolated island would rather it was known for its unique flora and fauna, like the beautiful long-tailed golden bosun bird or the annual red crab migration where tens of millions march to the sea to spawn. 

Not for the grey concrete compound surrounded by double barbed wire fences rising out of their ancient jungle. 

"Our argument is that it's not good for the long term economy of the island,'' Shire of Christmas Island president Gordon Thomson tells us. "A prison doesn't attract tourists."

But it does provide jobs and therein lies the conflict. With 70 locals employed as guards and support staff, it's one of the island's biggest employers. The other 170 staff are rotated on and off the island, flying the 2600km from Perth to work there.

There have been various statements over the years from politicians that the detention centre will close but the dates keep changing. 

Shire of Christmas Island president Gordon Thomson
Shire of Christmas Island president Gordon Thomson Source: Sunday

"It makes sense to close because the cost of doing their filthy business on the island is enormous,'' says Gordon. They can do that business of locking people up on the mainland [but] closing the detention centre isn't good for our economy."

Each month, Australia publishes a report showing how many people are in detention, why they're there, and where they are held. There are 334 men on Christmas Island, second only to the detention centre in Sydney which currently holds 426 men and 44 women. 

We've asked the Australian Government to tell us how many of the men held on Christmas Island are New Zealand citizens but despite submitting our Freedom of Information request three months ago, we haven't been given any answers. 

We do know that 176 of the 334 men on Christmas Island are there because their visas have been cancelled under Immigration laws - the main reason Kiwis are being held in detention.They're either awaiting deportation or fighting the order through an appeal process which can take more than a year.

The Australian Government has deemed that they don't pass a character test - they may have committed a crime, accused of a crime but not yet convicted by a court, or associated with gangs. 

The level of offending which earns a visa cancellation can vary. Anything from murder and drug offences to traffic fines and drink driving has seen New Zealand citizens kicked out of the country. Many have lived in Australia since they were children, some even born there and never known a life in New Zealand.

Gordon Thomson's community may rely on the detention centre, but the Christmas Island Shire President doesn't agree with the immigration regime: "Where's the world going when you punish a person twice for a crime, and that that second punishment is discriminatory.  It only happens to people who are not citizens of Australia, but they are people who've made their contribution, who've been brought up, who've lived their lives, who have families here."

He admires the advocacy work of Christchurch woman Filipa Payne. They met when she first went to Christmas Island in December 2016. She returned to the island in November last year on another mission to bring hope, compassion and love to the detainees. 

"Filipa is one of two people I know of who has come to provide that moral support, to provide an open heart and ear to hear and encourage these people who are in detention to continue life. You know, not to despair too much."

Many feel forgotten, she says. They are far from home and their families can't afford to travel to the remote colony for visits.

"I want people to have hope. I want them to know that there are people out there that care about them and that they're not alone through this very volatile and horrendously awful time."

SUNDAY tonight reports from Christmas Island with the Christchurch mum of five who visits detainees and brings their stories out from behind the barbed wire. Watch on SUNDAY 7.30pm TVNZ1 and TVNZOnDemand.

By Louisa Cleave – TVNZ1 SUNDAY Producer

Christmas Island Detention Centre.
Christmas Island Detention Centre. Source: Sunday