How many people does it take to keep an empty detention centre running?
At least 125, apparently.
Australia reopened its Christmas Island detention centre in early 2019, just a few months after closing it. The island is an Australian territory but lies 3,000km to the west of the mainland, closer to Indonesia.
The government threatened to send sick refugees from Nauru and Manus — the other islands where Australia detains refugees and asylum seekers — to Christmas Island instead of the Australian mainland.
But the centre stood empty until late August, when a Sri Lankan family of four known as the "Biloela family" were flown to Christmas Island and held in detention there.
In figures provided to a parliamentary committee considering the “medevac” law, the Department of Home Affairs gave a detailed insight into what its staff are actually doing on Christmas Island. The figures are from August 26, when there were no detainees there at all.
The 125 staff included 112 provided by detention contractor Serco. Of those, five handle catering: four staff plus a manager. Some handle “programs and activities”. Four look after welfare, 71 are detention service officers, and 10 of those are on the emergency response team. Four are on “compliance/admin”, and another four on “stores”.
Health contractor International Health and Medical Services supplied nine staff. Only four were directly employed by the Australian government: two Australian Border Force officers, and two Home Affairs officers.
At a committee hearing in late August, Labor senator Kim Carr asked public servants what the staff were doing on Christmas Island.
“They’ve established the stand-up of the centre. It was in hot contingency,” replied the home affairs department’s immigration detention group manager Kaylene Zakharoff.
Carr responded: “Right, but it’s empty?” Zakharoff agreed.
Carr clarified: “So they’re guarding an empty facility?”
“Well, they're maintaining its operational status,” Zakharoff said.
The staffing number is likely to be higher than 125 now that the centre has four detainees.
When he announced Christmas Island would be reopened, prime minister Scott Morrison said it would cost $1.4 billion. That figure was later revised down significantly, and the government pledged to shut the facility again.
Zakharoff told the hearing that $22.6 million had been spent at the end of July on keeping the centre open.
The back and forth is due to the medevac law, which was passed against the government’s wishes before May’s election. Now that the government has been re-elected with a stronger majority, it plans to repeal the law, which makes it easier for sick refugees to be transferred to Australia from offshore detention in Nauru or Manus Island.
Department representatives told the parliamentary committee in late August that none of the 112 people sent to Australia under medevac were on Christmas Island.
The members of the Biloela family — a Sri Lankan couple and their two toddler daughters — remain the only four people held on Christmas Island.
They were taken there after the family won a temporary reprieve against their deportation in the Federal Court of Australia. The family was supported by a popular public campaign to let them return to Biloela, the regional Australian town they had made their home.
Two United Nations Human Rights Committee special rapporteurs have urged the government to transfer the Biloela family to a "community setting arrangement", according to the ABC. A department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the family would remain on Christmas Island while judicial review proceedings are before the court.