SYDNEY (AFP) ― Protests by angry asylum seekers escalated at an Australian detention centre with rioters setting fire to buildings and police responding with tear gas and bean-bag bullets, officials said Friday.
A group of around 250-300 detainees on Christmas Island ran amok, hurling bricks and lighting fires late Thursday, forcing the Australian Federal Police to intervene, the Department of Immigration said.
The latest violence followed days of unrest at the centre, which houses some 1,800 boat people awaiting the lengthy processing of their applications to stay in the country.
“Last night buildings were damaged, fires were lit and there were violent approaches to the Australian Federal Police,” said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Seven marquees used to house 200 detainees were razed and two office blocks used to interview asylum seekers were also destroyed.
Police said poles, bricks, and concrete blocks were thrown by protesters wearing towels over their heads to conceal their identity.
Two asylum seekers were taken to hospital, one with chest injuries and another suffering chest pains unrelated to the riot.
Despite the increasingly violent protests, Bowen insisted police were firmly in control.
“The Australian Federal Police remain in control of the centre and will remain so as long as is necessary,” he said, adding that another 70 police were being rushed to the island to join the 118 already there.
“A group of around protesters seem to think violent behavior is an acceptable way to influence the outcome of their visa application or influence government decision making.
“We have made clear that we do not respond to this type of protest action.”
An angry Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd condemned the incident as “completely unacceptable.”
“How can you expect our officials to process applications for asylum when that sort of thing is happening?” he said.
More than 6,500 refugees ― mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka ― arrived in Australia last year on boats from Indonesia, crowding centers to capacity and inflaming debate on Canberra’s tough mandatory detention policy.
Christmas Island, a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean some 2,650 kilometers northwest of Perth, is the country’s main immigration detention facility and where all asylum seekers arriving by boat are taken.
The government is pushing for a regional processing centre to be built in East Timor in the hope of deterring refugees from making the perilous sea journey to Australia, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade.
But the boats keep coming with another one carrying 145 people intercepted in Australian waters on Thursday ― the 11th vessel caught so far this year and adding to the 541 who have arrived since the beginning of 2011.
They are set to be taken to Christmas Island, adding to the overcrowding and pressure-cooker atmosphere.
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott said the situation was tragic.
“The government has totally lost control of our detention system, just as it’s totally lost control of our borders,” he said.
“The only way to stop the unrest on Christmas Island is to stop the boats.”
The Australian newspaper said some 900 people found to be refugees but waiting for security checks would get an answer about their futures with six weeks under a new streamlined process, in an effort to clear a backlog.
Some have been waiting for 18 months.
Asylum seekers approved for a visa must also pass a security check by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization before being released into the community as permanent residents