Detainees set buildings alight and armed themselves with baseball bats in a riot at an Australian immigration facility on Christmas Island, people at the center said yesterday, with officials admitting the situation was out of control.
The disturbance at the Indian Ocean island center comes after the unexplained death of an escaped asylum-seeker. Detainees have complained about their treatment at the facility, which currently houses 203 men, among them asylum-seekers awaiting processing and non-citizens being deported because they have criminal convictions. "Order or control hasn't been regained within the center," Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News. He added that no injuries had been listed, no damage done to the perimeter fence and no-one had since tried to escape.
The Department for Immigration and Border Protection described the incident as a "major disturbance" but denied there was a large-scale riot. "There is currently no large-scale ‘riot' involving the majority of the center's population... but the center remains tense and staff have been withdrawn from compounds for safety reasons," a department statement said. "A group of detainees, believed to be non-citizens whose visas have been cancelled under mandatory cancellation provisions, continue to agitate and cause damage to the facility."
The department declined to specify the number of staff that had been evacuated when contacted by AFP. The trouble followed a peaceful protest by detainees on Sunday after the discovery of the body of an Iranian Kurdish asylum-seeker, named by Australian media as Fazel Chegeni, who had escaped.
Police are investigating the cause of death but Dutton, who was unable to confirm reports that the body was found at the base of a cliff, said he had been advised there were no suspicious circumstances. The department said other detainees "took advantage of the situation to engage in property damage and general unrest." "A number of small fires have been lit within the center," it said. "There is believed to be damage to medical, educational and sporting facilities but a full assessment is yet to be conducted."
A detainee told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) some inmates had armed themselves to resist any attempt to re-take the facility. "We're sick of it. We see it all the time, people trying to hurt themselves, kill themselves," the man, who spoke with a New Zealand accent and did not give his name, told RNZ by telephone. "We have a feeling that they're going to send a lot of guards in but a lot of detainees have armed up with baseball bats and poles just in case," he said.
Under Australia's hardline immigration policy, asylum-seekers arriving by boat are processed on isolated islands, rather than the mainland. As well as asylum seekers, Christmas Island's facility has increasingly been used to hold non-citizens awaiting deportation, including criminals after Canberra began cancelling the visas of those with criminal records.
In particular there has been an influx of Australian-based New Zealanders. Critics of the policy include New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, pointing out that many are being deported over minor crimes committed years ago and have no ties to their homeland after decades living in Australia.
Kiwi detainee Lester Hohua said convicted criminals with cancelled visas joined forces with asylum-seekers. "It all went haywire," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
New Zealand opposition lawmaker Kelvin Davis, who last month visited the center, said he had been told the disturbance began after a detainee who questioned guards about the death was punched in the face. "Things aren't good... I think it's the calm before the storm... one guy I spoke to said they're afraid, they're scared they're going to be shot," he told TV3.