William Yekrop, a South Sudanese refugee, in immigration detention. Source: Supplied
At least two refugees are among about one hundred immigration detainees who have been transferred to Christmas Island, despite authorities previously stating no refugees would be moved to the recently reopened facility.
The controversial North-West Point detention centre on the remote Australian territory was reopened in August to relieve pressure in onshore immigration detention, resulting from coronavirus travel bans halting deportations and the introduction of social distancing requirements.
The Australian Border Force (ABF) said on 5 August that "no refugees are being transferred to Christmas Island" and has repeatedly stressed the criminal histories of those set for transfer.
In a statement announcing the reopening, the ABF said the detainees transferred to the island had been convicted of crimes involving "assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent crimes."
The North West Point Detention Centre on Christmas Island.
However, SBS News is aware of at least two refugees among approximately 100 detainees so far transferred to the island, more than 1,500 kilometres off the West Australian coast.
William Yekrop, a Dinka refugee originally from Sudan, was moved to the North-West Point facility from Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre in Perth last month.
Refugees, such as Mr Yekrop, differ from the majority of detainees facing deportation on character grounds in that they were offered protection in Australia after facing human rights abuses in their home country and are unable to return safely.
The 36-year-old says he is facing indefinite detention after his humanitarian visa (subclass 202) was cancelled on character grounds after he served time in prison and was convicted of multiple offences, including drink-driving, damaging property, driving without a licence, larceny and assault.
But because of his refugee status, Mr Yekrop is unable to return to his country of birth.
“I’m facing indefinite detention, I’ve been here [in detentionhttps://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session81/A_HRC_WGAD_2018_20.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">United Nation's Human Rights Council in 2018 found Mr Yekrob "faces the real prospect of indefinite detention given that the only other possibility for him currently is deportation".
"Just because a detention is carried out in conformity with national law, it does not mean that the detention is not arbitrary under international law," the report read.
SBS News has also spoken to another South Sudanese man currently detained on Christmas Island who arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2008.
Asylum seeker and refugee advocates have previously criticised the temporary reopening of the North-West Point facility, which was closed by the federal government in 2018, as an attempt to keep detainees “out of sight and out of mind”.
“It’s unnecessary, it removes people from their families and their support networks, and it removes them from easy access to legal representation, to external health services,” said Alison Battisson, director principal of Human Rights for All, who is also representing Mr Yekrob.
“It’s really not a long term solution. And at an enormous expense, particularly in a global economic recession, there’s no need to spend this amount of money,” she said.
The cost of temporarily reopening the centre for six months, from August 2020, is estimated to be $55.6 million, ABF Commissioner Michael Outram told a senate committee on the COVID-19 response on 18 August.
He also detailed plans to transfer a total of 250 detainees to Christmas Island, consisting of people who have been convicted of crimes and had their visa cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act.
There were no immediate plans to transfer refugees or asylum seekers, he continued, but added that he didn't want to "lock [himself] in".
“Placement of individuals in detention facilities is determined with careful consideration of a number of factors including a rigorous risk assessment which ensures the safety and security of detainees and others,” an ABF spokesperson said in a statement.
The controversial immigration facility was closed by the federal government in 2018, only to be reopened the following year amid fears an influx of asylum seekers would be transferred to Australia under the now-repealed Medevac laws.
Most recently, the North-West Point facility was used as a quarantine facility for Australians evacuated from Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19, in February.
The Tamil family-of-four from Biloela in Queensland, who have been the subject of much media coverage, are currently held in a different facility on the island.
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