SYDNEY – Police used pepper spray and “bean bag” rounds Friday to quell up to 100 rioting asylum seekers at Australia’s troubled Christmas Island detention centre. Some of the rioters were armed with metal poles and pieces of concrete and pelted police and security guards during the unrest that began late Thursday, the Australian Federal Police said. One guard was injured, but not seriously. The centre was brought under control but two men remain on a rooftop.
“Order has been restored and the situation I’m advised now at Christmas Island is calm,” Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Sky News. “But of course we remain very focused on managing the issue in relation to the disturbances.” It was not clear what sparked the unrest although March riots at the facility began as a protest against the lengthy processing of detainees’ refugee status claims. Detention is mandatory for boatpeople arriving in Australia and most are taken to remote Christmas Island, leaving facilities there stretched and the atmosphere tense.
Some asylum seekers have been on the island for 18 months, with a record 6,900 arrivals in 2010 choking the system. Police said tear gas was not used but pepper spray and “bean bag” rounds — fabric bags filled with bird shot and fired from a shotgun — were. “Some of the protesters armed themselves with improvised weapons such as metal poles and broken concrete,” police said in a statement. “During negotiations, some of the protesters began throwing projectiles at police and security guards.” The purpose-built Christmas Island facility, which sits on a small Indian Ocean outcrop some 2,650 kilometres (1,650 miles) northwest of Perth, was last rocked by riots in March.
Then, about 250 inmates set fire to accommodation tents and hurled makeshift explosives at police, prompting them to respond with tear gas. Scores of inmates also escaped the complex, with some hiding in dense jungle for days. A month later and similar scenes were witnessed at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney, where nine buildings were torched and a handful of asylum seekers staged a rooftop protest that lasted a week. The latest unrest came as the United Nations stepped up criticism of Australia’s refugee detention policy, warning there was “no empirical evidence” that locking up asylum seekers deterred irregular migration.
“Global migration statistics have been rising regardless of increasingly harsh governmental policies on detention,” said the UN refugee agency’s representative in Australia Richard Towle. The problems continue to mount for the government with a rare case of leprosy detected at Villawood Friday while state broadcaster ABC said a Sri Lankan had begun a hunger strike a detention centre in Darwin. Canberra is finalising a controversial plan to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia for processing in exchange for accepting some 4,000 of the Southeast Asian nation’s already registered refugees.
The proposal has sparked controversy with concerns that the group could be mistreated with Malaysia not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Reports on Thursday said that rather than being sent to existing detention camps, they could spend six weeks in a new Australian-funded holding centre. They would then be issued identity tags and released into the community, allowing them to avoid being treated as illegal immigrants under Malaysian law, which will protect them from the possibility of caning. – Yahoonews