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Christmas Island.


In March, the Australian territory of Christmas Island witnessed rioting as asylum seekers burned , their detention centre and attacked security guards. About 2S0 inmates were involved, and the Australian authorities dispatched an additional 70 federal police to contain the riot.


The riot was primarily triggered by anger over the slow pace of asylum processing and overcrowding in the centre, which houses more than 2,500 asylum seekers, mainly Afghans, Sri Lankans and Iraqis, many of whom have been detained for more than 18 months. Plans are now afoot to process newly arrived asylum seekers in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin.

Christmas Island is located in the Indian Ocean about 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth and only about 360 kilometres south of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. It has an area of just 135 square kilometres and a settled population of 1,400 residents, 70 per cent of whom are Chinese, 20 per cent European and ten per cent Malay. The island's multi-ethnic composition is a legacy of its phosphate-mining history, which involved the use of colonial indentured labour.

The island was uninhabited when it was discovered on 25 December 1643 by a British East India Company vessel. Thereafter, it was periodically visited but not explored until the late 1850s. The British subsequently discovered large quantities of phosphate on the island, and it was formally annexed in June 1888 and a settlement established at Flying Fish Cove.

The island's strategic importance was underlined during the Second World War, when, in March 1942, Japanese forces occupied it in order to exploit the phosphate deposits. The island wasn't retaken by the British until October 1945.

In 1957, Australia requested a transfer of sovereignty. Eager to rationalise its imperial responsibilities, Britain approved the transfer, with Australia paying compensation to the government of Singapore in return for dropping its interest in the island. In 1997, it was formally united with the Keeling Islands to form the Australian Indian Ocean Territories and is now administered from Canberra by the federal Attorney-General's Department.

Apart from some exploration of the island's timber resources not long after colonisation, phosphate mining has been its only major economic activity. The mine was closed in 1987, but reopened in 1991. There have been some attempts to build a tourism industry on the island, but they've met with mixed success.

In recent years, Christmas Island has been caught up in a series of incidents involving asylum seekers and illegal immigrants sailing down from Indonesia. Most controversially, a Norwegian cargo ship, the MV Tampa, was prevented from disembarking 438 rescued asylum seekers on the island.

During John Howard's administration, the control and management of asylum seekers became one of the most divisive issues in Australian domestic politics. The 2001 federal election was dominated, in large part, by the Tampa incident.

The victorious Howard government passed legislation that excluded Christmas Island from Australia's migration zone, so that asylum seekers who landed there couldn't automatically apply for refugee status in Australia itself. This also allowed the Australian Navy to transfer some asylum seekers to detention camps that had been set up in other territories, such as in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

In 2007, the newly elected government under Kevin Rudd announced its intention to decommission the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. However, Christmas Island remains controversial and, indeed, stalked by tragedy. Last December, at least SO asylum seekers drowned when their vessel was dashed on rocks off the island--a tragic reminder of how this small, remote island remains tied up in a global network of asylum seeking and illegal migration.

KLAUS DODDS is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and editor of Geographical Journal
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Title Annotation:POLICE HOT spot
Author:Dodds, Klaus
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2011
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