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Tuesday, 17 July 2012 14:23

Christmas Island

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The view from the plane is nothing short of amazing. After hours of sea, sea and more sea, a speck of green appears. Christmas Island is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, located 2600km northwest of Perth; its closest neighbour is Java, 360km away. Although it is an Australian Territory, the island is far more reminiscent of South East Asia than anywhere in Australia.

The island is beautiful, isolated, very rugged and dangerous in many areas: the sea with the quick change in its currents and tides, the rugged slippery cliffs and the roads covered with phosphate, slippery when wet. It is a curious place with many historical and cultural influences. The local population is around 1400 permanent residents made up of Malay and Chinese who work in the mine, local council, and shops. Tourists come for diving, as the coral is the best in this part of the world, or to see the red crab migration or others take pleasure in bird watching or hiking in the unique rain forest.

On the North West of the island is the detention centre which holds around 500 men (sometimes more) in six different compounds. The centre is approximately 25 minutes drive from my accommodation at Poon Saan, except during the crab migration, when most roads are closed to protect the crabs. Crabs have the right of way at all times. During this time the only road open to the centre takes about 45 minutes and a little longer when the rains are heavy and visibility poor.

There are four other camps scattered around the area, two near North West centre and two closer to the airport. These two closer camps are for families and unaccompanied minors. Altogether there are around 860+ detainees at any one time. As clients are transferred out to other detention centres, others soon take their place.

I was invited to a Muslim (Hazaragi) prayer service one day and the reality of the people’s pain and suffering was brought home to me in a more tangible way. Throughout the prayer and with many tears, several photos, one by one, were placed on the white board. The people present questioned: “When will the killing of the Hazara people stop? Why won’t the world help us? We are persecuted all over the world except Australia. It seems the only place that is willing to accept us so that is why we come: for freedom and safety so we are grateful to the Australian people.” They were grateful that I would join with them in their pain by attending their prayer.

I cannot do much here except to listen and show that I care. I go to the main centre three days a week just to sit and talk. On a Friday, I have special permission to take three long-stay residents out for the day. What a difference it makes for them – such a change in their faces and personalities! I look forward to this day each week, because I feel that I am doing something at least to alleviate their pain, if only for a day.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 edition of the Keep In Touch (KIT) newsletter of the Sisters of Charity.