Posted at 02:35 PM ET, 09/28/2011

Christmas Island to take asylum-seekers: Five things you don’t know about the island

The Australian navy has intercepted an asylum-seeker boat with 75 passengers and two crew and is taking it to that tiny, lonely, moutainous Australian territory for refugees in the Indian Ocean: Christmas Island.

A boat carrying about 350 asylum seekers arrives at Christmas Island in 2001. (STR - REUTERS)
The Australian reports that smugglers sent the boat now because they were trying to capitalize on a current border protection impasse in the Australian government. But the 2,000-person island has long been a place where boats carrying illegal immigrants seek to land.

Despite its cheery name, Christmas Island is also a place with a sad and sordid history. Below are five things you may not know happened on the island:

1. Mutiny.

During the 1940s, when the British briefly ruled the island, a mutiny by Indian troops led to the murder of five British soldiers. The mutineers were give the death sentence by the Military Court in Singapore, but that sentenced was later commuted to penal servitude for life. 

2.Accusations of breaking international law.

Afghan refugees detained after trying to reach Christmas Island. (David Longstreath - AP)
In 2001, the Australian government stopped a Norwegian ship from dropping 438 rescued Afghan asylum-seekers at the island. When the ship asked for food or medicine, Australian commando troops were reportedly sent on board. The incident became a major black eye for the government, which was accused of failing to meet obligations for distressed mariners under international law. The incident also led to tighter border protection measures.

3. Children thrown overboard.

Later that same year, allegations surfaced that asylum-seekers had thrown children overboard so that they would be rescued and taken to Australia. An inquiry later found that no children had been thrown overboard, and that the government had known it was untrue. The Australian government again came under fire for the way it handled the situation.

4. “Prison-like” detention centers.

In 2007, Australia opened a government immigration processing and detention center on the island, which Amnesty International and nine other organizations have criticized for having a “high security, prison-like character” and “an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum.”
People clamber on the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt of the boat. (AP)

5. Boat crashes

In 2010, some 50 asylum-seekers died off the coast of the island when their boat crashed into rocks at Flying Fish Cove. The screams of refugees being pounded into the rocks were heard all across the island.

Correction: This post originally stated that nuclear tests were conducted at Christmas Island. They were not. They were conducted at the island of Kirimati in the Pacific, which is also called Christmas Island.

By  |  02:35 PM ET, 09/28/2011

Tags:  World, Australia, Christmas Island, refugee

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company