Australia asylum unrest spreads

23.Apr.02,  first published by Reuters: read the original article here.

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Unrest among asylum seekers in Australia has spread to a second detention camp after government officials said an earlier stand-off was showing signs of easing.

An immigration department spokeswoman said on Tuesday that a small group of detainees at the isolated Curtin centre were still refusing to cooperate with guards after a violent weekend riot although others had surrendered weapons and helped clean up debris.

But the unrest, which advocates for the mostly Middle Eastern and Afghan detainees blame on months of detention in harsh camps and which the government attributes to pending deportations, spread to a second camp overnight.

Several detainees at the smaller Port Hedland camp, about 360 miles southwest of Curtin, damaged centre facilities during a protest late Monday night, according to an immigration spokesman.

"During the disturbance, the detainees allegedly broke off fence supports and used them to cause damage to accommodation blocks at the centre. The detainees also lit a small fire which was immediately contained," the spokesman said.

He added that there were no injuries to either guards or detainees at the centre, which holds 182 asylum seekers.

About 28 detention centre staff were injured at the Curtin camp at the weekend when some 100 detainees, armed with sharpened broomsticks and meat cleavers, rioted. The camp holds 340 detainees.

Tensions at Curtin had eased overnight and federal police and staff were negotiating with a few asylum seekers who may have weapons, the immigration department spokeswoman said.

"The majority of detainees are co-operative and are keen to see the centre return to normal operations," she added. "Weapons, including tools, lumps of wood, sharpened curtain rods and pieces of steel, are being surrendered voluntarily by detainees."

Independent confirmation of the situation was not possible, with all access to the camps strictly controlled by the conservative coalition government.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission recently won access to one of the camps but rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have been turned away.

The six camps, which have been plagued by rioting, hunger strikes and mass breakouts over the past two years, grabbed headlines following a mass breakout and protest at the largest camp, Woomera.

Controversy over the camps heightened on Tuesday with television footage showing detainees bashing themselves bloody against the walls of their cells and begging to be freed from the desolate Curtin camp.

In the tape, filmed in June 2001, one unconscious detainee was shown being dragged a few feet by staff before being left, untreated, on the ground.

But Australia Prime Minister John Howard said the government would not be swayed from mandatory detention of illegal immigrants, a policy which has won widespread popular support among average Australians despite the international criticism.

"I know they don't like being in detention, but without sounding in any way insensitive I hope, if people did not seek to come to Australia illegally, they would not be in detention," Howard told reporters in Melbourne.