Sydney (AFP) – A disturbance broke out Monday at Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre, the immigration department said, amid reports rioters seized control of the facility after the death of an asylum seeker.
The department said it was not aware of injuries on the remote Indian Ocean island, although inmates allegedly set fires and smashed up the centre after security guards fled for their lives.
“The department can confirm a disturbance at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre,” a statement said. “The department and its service providers are working together to resolve the situation.”
Officials declined further comment but a detainee told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) rioters had armed themselves with bats and poles to resist any attempt to re-take the facility.
The man said the catalyst was the discovery on Sunday of the body of an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker, named by Australian media as Fazel Chegeni, after he escaped. It was unclear how Chegeni died.
“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.
Detainees have long complained about ill-treatment at the centre, which is part of Canberra’s hardline migration policy.
“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.
“If they come in they’re going to hurt us without a doubt… it’s abuse, it’s torture, it’s time we took a stand.”
There has been an influx of Australian-based New Zealanders at Christmas Island recently after Canberra began cancelling visas of those with criminal records.
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 centre that holds more than 200 people, said he had been told the riot 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.
Under Australia’s policy, asylum-seekers arriving by boat are processed on remote islands, rather than the mainland.
Since late last year, Australian-based foreign nationals being deported because they have criminal convictions have faced similar treatment.
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.