At the corner of Packard and Smith Street, Larrakeyah – less than one kilometre from the heart of Darwin City is the Asti Motel. ‘A relaxing environment
for guests .. Affordable and comfortable accommodation’ is how the proprietors describe the Asti, on the Motel’s website. ‘86 air-conditioned units, all with balcony .. colour television with in house movies .. saltwater swimming pool .. and ironing facilities.’ Even asylum seekers need to iron their clothes.
The Asti Motel is Darwin’s unofficial ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’.
From dusk each night, standing on the Asti’s first and second floor balconies you can see the asylum seekers. Men, women and children looking out onto the street; watching locals and tourists walk past – unaware who the people watching them from the Motel are. The Government says the asylum seekers are not imprisoned. While they may not be surrounded by four walls and barbed wire, these Asti Motel guests can’t leave.
The 40 plus asylum seekers are the people Prime Minister Julie Gillard wants to send to a regional offshore processing centre – Gillard’s East Timor solution. Will an offshore processing centre in Dili, PNG or Nauru really stop the boats? It might take the asylum seeker issue off the ‘front page’, but while there is a chance of a new start in Australia, people will risk their lives trying to achieve the Aussie dream.
Christmas Islands overcrowding has now become Darwin’s problem. At the height of the tourist season (the dry), the three star Asti Motel is a mid-range hotel at Capital City prices. A special website rate of $150 for a double room is available, but be quick there is only one room left. “Accommodation is at a peak” says Tony Clementson, the General Manager of Tourism Top End – “… we’re in the peak season, very very busy. Last night I think we were just about at capacity”.
Darwin’s room shortage, cost saving or a mistake – embarrassingly, members of the Royal Thai Air Force who are in Darwin to participate in Pitch Black 2010, a multi-national fast jet exercise are also bunking down at the ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’. Air Commander Australia, Vice Marshall Mark Skidmore in Darwin for the launch of Pitch Black was unaware his Thai military counterparts and several dozen asylum seekers are living under the same roof. Asked if there were any security concerns about the housing arrangement, AVM Skidmore replied: “That’s something we would look at, again I need to talk to the Thai and understand what the issues might be.”
The Thai pilots must not be concerned – five days later, they are still sleeping at the Asti Motel.
Like it or not, the asylum seekers are caught in the middle of a political football game called – ‘asylum seeker hard ball’. A real life match where both major parties tell potential voters they will stop the boats. A Northern Command Navy Officer whose job it is to stop the boats at sea, said to me recently – ‘we should just double our intake’ .. ‘think of the money we would save’. It’s not a bad argument.
Looking at the Asti’s booking website – ‘Extended Stay Double/Single and Studio Family rooms’ are fully booked until the first of January 2011. Promising – ‘the friendly helpful staff are always ready to welcome you and ensure a pleasant stay’ – it appears these Iraqi’s, Afghani’s and Sri Lankan’s will be calling the Asti Motel home for some time yet.