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Christmas Island’s refugee split

UNKNOWN FUTURE: Asylum seekers are transported to Christmas Island in 2012 after their boat issued a distress signal.
UNKNOWN FUTURE: Asylum seekers are transported to Christmas Island in 2012 after their boat issued a distress signal. AAP

THE Louis Vuitton handbags, US dollars and laptops spotted in the possession of some asylum seekers are not the only reason opinions are split among Christmas Island residents.

The powerfully built and fit stand out for obvious reasons and lead to questions about whether all those claiming refugee status are genuine.

Jon Stanhope, the island's administrator, warns against generalisations, but acknowledges a them-and-us attitude has been set up by policy that appears to residents to prioritise detention centre funding over their needs.

A critical extension to the island's main jetty should be greeted with enthusiasm by a resident population for which fishing is a major pastime.

Instead, Mr Stanhope said, the reaction was cynical.

Tourism Association president Lisa Preston said dislike was universal for the people smugglers who put lives at risk.

Opinions were split among those who saw refugees firsthand, she said.

Ms Preston, who has lived on the island for 16 years, runs a tourism bus and 4WD business, drives a school bus and makes lunches on the side for Customs and border patrol flight crews to supplement her income.

She said when you saw the state some refugees arrived, it could not help but generate compassion.

But others who turned up with money, laptops and bling caused many to question their circumstances.

Ms Preston said Muslim women and Sri Lankan arrivals were gracious and grateful. Older Middle Eastern males were less so.

Ructions were occurring in the detention centre with older Middle Eastern Muslims angry that their young were no longer as keen to participate in religious observance.

Ms Preston said many saw Australia as an "absolute new start" and considered Islam had not served them.

Islanders hold no religious fears with 10% of their own population practising Muslims. Small mosques and other places of worship are part of the island architecture.

Local photographer Sharon Tisdale greets every new arriving boat with the sharp focus of her camera.

Her pictures are posted on a website, Look, Listen, Decide, which appears to have made its mind up in advance.

Shots she has taken of fit, heavily muscled males have found their way into anti-boat people emails that are in current circulation.

Ms Preston said that with 100 locals employed in the detention centre business there was a level of tolerance.

But there was also a sense the community was secondary to the wants and needs of the detention centre and was being downtrodden.

She watched on helpless as 48 people drowned in front of the pub, saying despite all her senses being super-hyped it was difficult to accept the reality of what was unfolding before residents unable to render assistance.

She turned away, unable to watch the horror.

Oliver Lines works in the island's local government-run recreation centre and has lived on the island with his parents for more than 20 years.

"A lot are very polite but quiet," he said. "You can see they've been through hell. Being kept here for longer periods of time doesn't help."

Some he had spoken to from Afghanistan had been forced to leave their homes after seeing their parents butchered. Grandparents sold everything they got to fund an escape that took them first into Pakistan where they stuck out, making them fodder for those who wanted to abuse them.

Oliver said people he had met had taken meaningless jobs and island-hopped all the way down to their final fate behind wire.

"They get to Indonesia and can hang around Jakarta for five years with their kids," he said. "Their last hope is to jump on a boat. They think that will be the end of it, that we're the light at the end of the tunnel.

"When they first get here they are very happy, smile and say hello. The kids run around. They think they've made it.

"Then there is a quietening down as they realise ..."

Topics:  asylum seekers christmas island editors picks federal election 2013



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