Prime Minister John Key won't be ringing his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull about the present chaos in the prison on Australia's "Devil's Island". He claims the caged New Zealanders are free to come home if they choose. He added he wouldn't expect Mr Turnbull to ring him, if Australians were caught up in a riot at Paremoremo Prison.

Perhaps not. But that's not a fair comparison.

I'm betting that if New Zealand immigration officers began knocking on the doors of 50 or more expat Australians at dawn and despatched them, with no prior warning to family or lawyers, to a Serco-run internment camp on remote sub-antarctic Campbell Island, then not just the Australian prime minister, but the Australian media as well, would be demanding explanations.

The comparison with Paremoremo implies the people held against their will on Christmas Island are convicted and sentenced prisoners. They're not. They're there because of visa issues. The majority are desperate boat people, refugees fleeing war and persecution. Others, like the New Zealand contingent, are caught by retrospective visa law changes.


The inhumane policy the Australians have adopted of shipping these people to holding pens on remote Christmas Island, 2650 km northwest of Perth, is an outrage.

To me, Campbell Island has always seemed to be at the ends of the earth, yet it is only 700km south of Bluff. Christmas Island is more than three times that distance from Perth. From there, these captives are expected to extricate themselves, without the support of family or lawyers.

By rioting, as Mr Key points out, these desperate people have made their own situations worse. The Australian authorities can now charge them with criminal offences and the Australian politicians can go tut tut, bad bunch, told you so.

But this was a situation where the Australians put a pot on the stove, turned up the heat, and waited until it boiled over. The flash point was the death of Iranian Kurd Fazel Chegeni, found dead at the bottom of a cliff after escaping. Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, says the man had been subjected to long-term arbitrary detention. The man told other detainees "he could no longer stand being in detention and just wanted to go outside". New Zealand detainee Ricardo Young told the Herald, "you can only back someone into a corner so much".

If the uprising has made it worse for the rioters, it has also embarrassed Australia in the week it appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council for a performance review. Worse for Australia, the bad publicity occurs while it continues lobbying for a prized seat on this powerful council. This body is charged with "the protection and promotion of all human rights around the globe".

This presumably includes the human rights of the 50 or so New Zealanders imprisoned in limbo, half a world away from family and legal advice. To our shame, New Zealand's submission to the Australia review made no mention of this.

Debate on this article is now closed.