The Howard government operated the “Pacific Solution” from 2001 to 2007, excising Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone so that asylum seekers on the island could not apply for refugee status. Asylum seekers were relocated from Christmas Island to Manus Island and Nauru. In 2006, an immigration detention center, containing approximately 800 beds, was constructed on the island for the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Originally estimated to cost A$276 million, the final cost was over $400 million.
In 2007, the Rudd government decommissioned Manus Regional Processing Centre and Nauru detention centre; processing would then occur on Christmas Island itself.
In December 2010, 48 asylum-seekers died just off the coast of the island in what became known as the Christmas Island boat disaster when the boat they were on, hit rocks off Flying Fish Cove, and then smashed against nearby cliffs.
In the case Plaintiff M61/2010E v Commonwealth of Australia, the High Court of Australia ruled, in a 7–0 joint judgment, that asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island were entitled to the protections of the Migration Act. Accordingly, the Commonwealth was obliged to afford asylum seekers a minimum of procedural fairness when assessing their claims.
As of 20 June 2013, after the interception of four boats in six days, carrying 350 people, the Immigration Department stated that there were 2,960 “irregular maritime arrivals” being held in the island’s five detention facilities, which exceeded not only the “regular operating capacity” of 1,094 people, but also the “contingency capacity” of 2,724.
The Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre closed on 30 September 2018. On 13 February 2019 the Morrison government announced it would re-open the centre, after Australia’s parliament passed legislation giving sick asylum seekers easier access to mainland hospitals.
The island is about 12 miles in greatest length and 9 miles in breadth. The total land area is 52 square miles, with 86.3 miles of coastline. The island is the flat summit of an underwater mountain more than 14,800 feet high, which rises from about 13,780 feet below the sea and only about 984 feet above it.
The mountain was originally a volcano, and some basalt is exposed in places such as The Dales and Dolly Beach, but most of the surface rock is limestone accumulated from coral growth. The karst terrain supports numerous anchialine caves. The summit of this mountain peak is formed by a succession of Tertiary limestones ranging in age from the Eocene or Oligocene up to recent reef deposits, with intercalations of volcanic rock in the older beds.
Steep cliffs along much of the coast rise abruptly to a central plateau. Elevation ranges from sea level to 1,184 feet at Murray Hill. The island is mainly tropical rainforest, 63% of which is national parkland. The narrow fringing reef surrounding the island poses a maritime hazard.
Christmas Island lies 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, Western Australia, 220 miles south of Indonesia, 606 miles ENE of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and 1,708 miles west of Darwin, Northern Territory. Its closest point to the Australian mainland is 970 miles from the town of Exmouth, Western Australia.
Phosphate mining had been the only significant economic activity, but in December 1987 the Australian government closed the mine. In 1991, the mine was reopened by a consortium which included many of the former mine workers as shareholders. With the support of the government, the $34 million Christmas Island Casino and Resort opened in 1993 but was closed in 1998. As of 2011, the resort has re-opened without the casino.