Asylum-seekers damage centre in visa protest

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Tension in an Australian immigration detention centre erupted in violence yesterday when asylum-seekers set fire to more than a dozen buildings and guards trying to douse the flames said protesters had thrown stones.

The riot at Woomera, in the remote South Australian Outback, was the most serious in two years. The government called it a criminal act aimed at blackmailing immigration officials; refugee advocates said it reflected detainees' frustration at harsh conditions in the camp and delays in processing claims.

Asylum-seekers, mainly from the Middle East and central Asia, reportedly shouted "Visa! Visa!" during the riot, which followed two peaceful protests on Monday. At least four buildings, including new accommodation units, were destroyed. Dave Kirby, who owns a nearby service station, said: "At one stage there were about a dozen fires burning simultaneously. They were throwing rocks, smashing windows, yelling and screaming. Then huge explosions started, and fireballs."

The Immigration Department, which rarely allows the media into detention centres, invited television cameras into Woomera to film the damage. Daryl Williams, the federal attorney general, warned that residents were "sadly mistaken if they believe that by engaging in actions like these, they are going to improve their chances of obtaining a visa".

Australia is the only Western democracy that mandatorily detains all illegal immigrants, including children, while their asylum claims are processed. John Howard's right-wing government was returned to power last month after adopting a hardline stance of turning away would-be refugees who arrive in leaky boats.

The latest trouble at Woomera, near the former British rocket-testing range and surrounded by barbed wire, is believed to have been provoked by a spate of visa rejections and the approach of Christmas.

Immigration officials said residents hurled missiles including stones and chairs at staff from Australian Correctional Management, the commercial company that runs the centres. Fifteen guards were treated for smoke inhalation.

Refugee lawyers and church groups said the violence was indicative of the desperation of detainees. There have been seven fire-related incidents at Woomera in a month, and staff claimed detainees had threatened to burn the entire complex unless they were given refugee visas by Christmas. Police are investigating the riot.