Australian officials were working Monday to contain unrest at a remote detention center for asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean, with protesters lighting a series of small fires and guards withdrawing from the compound.
The immigration department confirmed there was a “major disturbance” at the detention center on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said one detainee caught up in the fray had requested medical assistance for an unspecified reason, but no serious injuries had been reported.
Refugee advocates say riots broke out following the death of an asylum seeker who escaped from the facility on Saturday. The man’s body was found the following day at the bottom of a cliff on the island. The cause of his death is under investigation.
The immigration department denied there was a large-scale riot, but said staff had withdrawn from the facility for safety reasons.
The department said the problem began when a small group of Iranian detainees staged a peaceful protest following the asylum seeker’s death. Other detainees then began damaging the property, including lighting several small fires.
Officials were negotiating with the detainees in a bid to end the standoff, Dutton told reporters. He declined to elaborate on what the detainees wanted and said he didn’t know how many people were involved in the protest.
The group leading the unrest appeared to be detainees who are being held at the facility due to their visas being canceled — not asylum seekers, immigration officials said.
Australia strengthened the power it has to cancel visas last year, making it mandatory to do so if a person has been sentenced to at least a year in jail. That has led to an influx of New Zealanders with criminal records — some of whom were long-term residents of Australia — ending up in immigration detention while they await deportation. Some of them are appealing the government’s decision to revoke their visas.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he was told there may be a few New Zealanders involved in the unrest and if so, they’re doing nothing to help their case to stay in Australia.
“The risk is that they actually damage their own appeals because they undertake other criminal activity,” Key told reporters.
New Zealand lawmaker Kelvin Davis, who recently visited the island, said a New Zealander held at the facility told him that detainees had taken over the center.
“They have put holes in the walls, so even if they are rounded up and put back in the cells they actually can’t be locked up,” Davis told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The immigration department said the perimeter was secure.
Australia has taken a tough stance in recent years on asylum seekers who try to reach its shores illegally. Asylum seekers who pay smugglers to take them in boats to Australia from Indonesia are detained on Christmas Island and on the impoverished Pacific islands.