Riots hit Australia's hated 'asylum island'

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The Independent Online

Australia's reviled immigration-detention system appeared on the brink of breakdown yesterday, with police braced for a fifth night of riots at one centre, unrest spreading to others and an asylum-seeker found hanged in his room – the fourth such suicide in a year.

Tensions were highest on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean that has the country's largest detention facility. On Thursday night, 250 men armed with poles, bricks and concrete blocks set fire to buildings after charging police lines and trying to storm perimeter fences. Officers used tear gas and non-lethal "beanbag" bullets to regain control.

It was the fourth night of trouble at the centre, which has been wracked by violent protests and mass break-outs over the past week. Refugee advocates say detainees are frustrated at delays in processing their asylum applications. But the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, warned yesterday that such action would only lessen the likelihood of their applications succeeding.

The detention system has been under strain for the past year, thanks to increasing numbers of refugees arriving by boat, mainly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Overcrowding – there are nearly 2,000 detainees on Christmas Island in a facility originally designed for 400 – and longer processing times have created a tinderbox situation. They have also generated despair, as demonstrated by the death of a 20-year-old Afghan man at the Scherger Detention Centre in Queensland. The young man, said to be from the Hazara minority, reportedly hanged himself with a bedsheet.

As the government talked tough and police reinforcements were flown to Christmas Island – where at least 30 asylum-seekers died last December when their boat crashed into rocks during a storm – the president of Australia's Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson, warned that mandatory detention was a recipe for tragedy.

"We think the way to address the problem is to deal with the underlying structural problem, which is a system that has too many people held for too long in detention for indefinite periods of time," she said.

Australia is the only Western nation that locks up all adults who arrive claiming refugee status. A leading mental-health expert, Patrick McGorry, has described the immigration detention centres as "factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder". Of the asylum-seekers currently awaiting visas, most have been incarcerated for more than six months and some for up to 18 months.

While the scale of the problem of unauthorised arrivals is minuscule compared with Europe – about 6,500 "boat people" arrived in Australia last year – the issue is politically explosive. "The government has totally lost control of our detention system," Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, said yesterday. "The only way to stop the unrest on Christmas Island is to stop the boats."

That seems unlikely to happen. A vessel carrying 145 people was intercepted in Australian waters on Thursday; the previous day, one with 48 passengers was picked up. Meanwhile, there have been disturbances this week at mainland detention centres, including the remote Curtin facility in Western Australia where 100 people staged a protest. At the Broadmeadows centre in Victoria, a 17-year-old Iraqi climbed a tall tree and threatened to jump after learning that his asylum application had been rejected on security grounds. And in Darwin, detainees held a rooftop protest at one centre and staged a mass walk-out at another.

Yesterday the Immigration Department began transferring asylum-seekers from Christmas Island to ease overcrowding. The government also announced that it was fast-tracking the security checks refugees must undergo once their applications are approved.

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