It is one of Australia’s most beautiful locations, a remote, jungle-draped island ringed by empty beaches and virgin reefs, and home to a crab phenomena that astonished Sir David Attenborough. Yet very few tourists visit Christmas Island, a mysterious place with a dark history which is home to just 1,800 people and is so isolated it costs £600 to fly to from the Australian mainland.
Instead of being famous for its red crab migration, when millions of crustaceans blanket it while breeding, Christmas Island is infamous for its refugee detention centre, which has now been suggested as a potential coronavirus quarantine site.
Australia closed its national borders on March 20, its state borders soon after, and since March 28 all residents returning to Australia have had to spend two weeks quarantined in a hotel room in one of its cities. Now, however, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has suggested quarantining overseas arrivals in the refugee centre on Christmas Island, the State’s most far-flung territory, closer to Bali than Perth.
McGowan last week nominated Christmas Island as a potential new quarantine location to help his State cope with an upcoming increase in international arrivals. His comments came as it was announced Australia would soon ease limits on the number of residents allowed to return to each State from overseas.
WA currently allows just 525 overseas arrivals per week, a policy intended to prevent its hotel quarantine system from being overloaded. That number will increase to 725 from this Monday (September 28) before rising to 1,025 starting from October 12.
Australia’s Federal Government pushed for these increased arrivals to each State, and in response McGowan said he would like to quarantine returning residents in Federal facilities like the Christmas Island detention centre. Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter told Perth radio station 6PR he rejected the idea of quarantining Australians at this this huge facility, which has been contentious since it opened in 2006.
For years, human rights activists have condemned living conditions at the centre as well as Australia’s policy of using it to detain refugees. It was closed in 2018 and re-opened recently to house several dozen refugees, so it remains unclear how it would be converted into a coronavirus quarantine site for Australian residents.
This facility has far more in common with a prison than the five-star Perth hotel where my family and I were lucky to complete our 14-day quarantine after returning from Ireland in June. I have been to the Christmas Island detention centre several times to report on Australia’s refugee issue. While I was not allowed inside, I walked most of its perimeter, trudging through forest to gain the best vantage points to see beyond its razor wire fences into its exercise areas.
It is a harsh, depressing place, with the centre isolated from Christmas Island’s main town and wedged between dense jungle and the Indian Ocean. Housing anyone other than convicted criminals in such a facility is unjust. It would be insane to force returning Australian residents to spend 14 days trapped inside this centre, instead of in hotels in Perth.
This latest controversy adds to the dark history of this gorgeous island. Located 2,600km north-west of Perth, Christmas Island was discovered in 1643 by an East India Company boat, but was not settled as a British colony until 1888 after phosphate was discovered there.
Two British men established a phosphate mining company, and imported workers from China, Malaysia and India who suffered horrendous working conditions. In the space of just five years in the early 1900s, more than 500 of these mine workers died from illness linked to malnutrition.
During the Second World War, Christmas Island was invaded and occupied by 900 Japanese troops, before becoming a colony of Singapore in 1949 and then an Australian territory in 1958. The island was a little-known place, even to most Australians, until 2006 when its new detention centre made it a lightning rod for the country’s hotly-debated refugee issue.
It is terribly unfortunate Christmas Island gains most international attention only for grim reasons as it’s a unique and majestic place. With its spectacular scenery, exotic wildlife, and appealing blend of Chinese, Malay and Australian cultures, this remote island has all the elements required to be a hugely popular tourist destination.
During seven years as a travel journalist, I have visited few places as wild and intriguing. The red crab migration is perhaps the most curious event I’ve ever witnessed. Each year, sometime between October and January, millions of these crabs leave the island’s forest and swarm to its coastline to mate and reproduce.
They do this very slowly, resulting in the crabs carpeting roads, footpaths and parks for days at a time. Each morning, I left my hotel room to find dozens of these crustaceans relaxing near the doorstep, and hundreds more surrounding my hire car.
I have long wondered if these marching crabs manage to get inside the island’s detention centre. If McGowan has his way, quarantining Australians may soon be able to answer that question for me.