The Voyage

In October 2018, I will travel to Christmas Island, an Australian Territory in the Indian Ocean (for six weeks) and Melbourne, Australia (for two weeks) to study the annual red crab migration and the Christmas Island detention center. I hope to produce a podcast bringing these stories of human and non-human migration into conversation and explore what animal migration can tell us about human migration, particularly with relation to displaced populations worldwide. 

This project is generously supported by the Beagle II Award through Stanford University. Learn more about the Beagle II. 

voyage map
Map of my voyage from my research proposal.

Background

from my Beagle II research proposal

Christmas Island is home to one of the most spectacular migrations on the planet. Every October, millions of endemic red crabs leave the forest at once and walk across roads, over golf courses, and through forest toward the sea to breed. The migration is unique for both its density and brevity. Now, however, the crab population is in danger from both tourist traffic (crabs get crushed as they cross roads [1]) and the yellow crazy ant, an invasive species that poisons and kills the crabs. [2]

The yellow crazy ant is not the only outside population shaping the island. In the late 1800s, indentured Chinese laborers were brought to the island to work for the British Christmas Island Phosphate Company. Hundreds of Chinese workers died from beriberi, a nutritional disease, resulting in a series of gravesites that remain today. [3] The history of the mine laborers is reflected in the Island’s unique, primarily-Chinese population.

Besides the yellow crazy ants and indentured Chinese workers, the island has recently received, or rather failed to receive, another outsider population: asylum seekers. In 2007, construction was completed on an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre to temporarily detain asylum seekers from neighboring islands. In response to the 2001 Pacific Solution in which “4000 islands were excised from Australia’s migration zone,” Christmas Island became a temporary holding center for boat-bound asylum seekers. [4] Intermixed with criminal detainees in the detention center, asylum seekers were subjected to overcrowding, lack of security, and other unreasonable conditions.

As a home to several intersecting migrations, Christmas Island is a rich microcosm with the potential to reveal new insights about what it means to be an outsider. The red crab population has fluctuated with the introduction of invasive species; the Chinese mine workers were part of a global trend of imported Chinese labor across Central America and southeast Asia; the asylum seekers are, like many other currently displaced populations, denied a home. Within the history of Christmas Island, we see three different forms of outsiders: the accidental (the yellow crazy ant), the forcible (the Chinese workers), and the exclusionary (the asylum seekers). As a place where ecological history and cultural history are colliding, the stories of Christmas Island and its inhabitants, temporary or not, may reveal critical insights about how we label and treat non-native populations.

[1] “Christmas Island Red Crab.” National Geographic, 24 Oct. 2017,

[2] “Red Crab Migration Of Christmas Island • Lazer Horse.” Lazer Horse, 17 Nov. 2015,

[3] Emery, Ryan. “Discovering Christmas Island’s Brutal Chinese Past.” SBS News, 18 Aug. 2016,

[4] “The Pacific Solution.” Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia, by Antje Missbach, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2015.