Refugee riots shake Australia’s Christmas Island

Australian opposition politicians demand government disclose extent of unrest after dead body of refugee discovered at bottom of cliff close to immigration center on Chrismas Island

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Refugees at a detention camp

The death of an escaped refugee has shalen Australia’s Christmas Island immigration detention center, leading some guards to leave the facility on Sunday. 

Unrest broke out in the refugee detention center shortly after Australia's immigration department confirmed the body of Kurdish-Iranian refugee Fazel Chegeni was discovered at the bottom of some cliffs away from the centre.

Kurdish-Iranian refugee, Fazel Chegen

According to a refugee who resides at the centre, over 100 detainees had gathered to fight the guards when they returned.

"Everybody is just angry," the refugee said, adding that "We have had enough of what they're doing with us."

During the riot, fences were torn down and security guards were scared away, the immigration department said.

"I believe a fence has been torn down and detainees from the segregated unit have joined the other detainees. I believe that canisters have been fired into the compound but haven't gone off," New Zealand Labour Party spokesman Kelvin Davis told Radio New Zealand.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has accepted there was a "major disturbance" at the center, adding that the disturbance did not lead to injuries or damage.

He told Australia's House of Representatives that there were “no suspicious circumstances” surrounding the death of the refugee whose body was found 2 days after his escape.

However, inmates said they heard Chegeni was pursued by guards after he escaped from the center on Saturday.

"We heard him screaming. I think they were chasing him through the jungle. Then the screams just stopped."

Dutton stated on Monday that people who damaged to Commonwealth property will be investigated and prosecuted.

"There is obviously a coronial inquiry in relation to the circumstances surrounding that death of that individual,” he added.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the opposition Greens Party said that tensions could flare up again when the staff return.

"I have spoken with people who are locked up in the center and they say that there is widespread unrest and fires across the facility” Hanson-Young said in a statement.

The situation was worsened by guards during the unrest, according to New Zealand Labor Party member Kelvin Davis, who has spoken with detainees in the detention centre.

He reported concern from detainees that guards would come back with batons waving, rather than trying to calm the situation.

The asylum seekers who reached Australian shores were transferred to detention centers in Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific and not given opportunities to work or study.

Australia's refugee has frequently come under criticism due to the transfer of refugees to the detention centers in remote islands.

In June, asylum seekers and an Indonesian police chief said that Australian officials paid thousands of dollars to the captain and crew of a refugee boat that was carrying asylum seekers, who were then ordered to return to Indonesia. 

Australian officials have defended themselves by saying that the refugees reach the country with the help of criminal gangs. However, Human Rights Watch says Australia’s offshore detention centers have been a disaster as refugees in the centers are not treated in accordance with international standards.

The UN and reports from human rights groups say that refugees in the detention camps face systemic abuse and sexual assault

Deaths in Australian-run detention centers are common. In 2014, Hamid Kehazaei and Reza Barati lost their lives in a detention center located on the Manus Islands.  

Just a year after their death, Australia was shaken by the deaths of Ali Jaffari and Mohammad Nasim Najafi in a detention center at Yongah Hill in Western Australia.

TRTWorld and agencies