Australian Asylum Camp Burns as Staff Flees
CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) - Asylum seekers occupied a detention center compound on Australia's remote Christmas Island Tuesday, setting fire to a dining hall and challenging guards in an armed stand-off, government officials said.
The protest on the Indian Ocean island came less than 24 hours after detainees staged similar action at an Outback detention center, where staff fled attacks by asylum seekers armed with metal bars and stones.
"Detainees armed with pipes and other weapons have occupied one of the compounds on Christmas Island and set the dining hall on fire," said Jenny Hoskin, spokeswoman for the Immigration Department. "It's a bit of a stand-off and is something that's still happening," added Steve Ingram, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, at 2 a.m. EST.
Hoskin said she wasn't aware of any injuries to either the center's guards or to the detainees on the island, 1,450 miles west of Darwin and 350 miles south of Jakarta. "And we're certainly not aware of any guns being used."
The blazes at the desert Woomera camp in South Australia, which continued an outbreak of trouble sweeping Australia's seven detention centers for illegal arrivals, destroyed or damaged 43 buildings before they were finally brought under control.
It was the latest in a string of uprisings at Woomera which hit international headlines earlier this year as detainees staged a mass hunger strike, sewed their lips up and threatened suicide.
"Officers were pelted with stones and threatened with metal bars as they tried to extinguish the fires which were driven by strong winds, spread rapidly and eventually destroyed two compounds," the Immigration Department said in a statement.
"Detainees continued to hamper efforts to control the fires (and) staff were forced to withdraw."
It took several hours for firefighters to get the blazes under control, whereas a couple of small fires lit Sunday were put out by staff with no damage, government officials said.
No one was seriously injured in the disturbance but some staff and detainees were treated on site for smoke inhalation.
Federal police were due to arrive Tuesday and charges were expected to be laid against some of the 121 detainees.
The fires at Woomera followed similar blazes at two other centers in recent days, blamed on detainees awaiting deportation after their applications for asylum in Australia failed.
Damage bill rises
With the damage bill at Woomera expected to reach $4.2 million, extra guards were on duty to prevent more trouble.
The latest violence again shone a spotlight on Australia's hard-line stance of detaining all illegal arrivals, including women and children, in guarded camps.
Asylum cases can take years to process, triggering a series of protests and escapes in recent years and prompting the government to start mothballing Woomera, the most isolated camp.
But Prime Minister John Howard said his conservative government would not be deterred from detaining illegal immigrants or from diverting boats carrying mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern asylum seekers to Pacific islands.
Both policies have been sharply criticized by international human rights groups and the United Nations.
"If anybody thinks they can alter our policy by setting fire to detention centers then they are wrong. That won't alter our policy one iota," Howard told a Sydney radio station.
Refugee advocacy groups acknowledged the latest violence did nothing to enhance the asylum seekers' cause but stressed that the long period people spent in detention was unacceptable.
"People at Woomera...are getting very angry and frustrated and, while that does not excuse this behavior, it explains it," said Marion Le from the Independent Council for Refugee Advocacy.
Howard's tough stand against illegal immigration has broad public support in this island continent of 20 million people.
The government insists it works. No boatpeople have reached Australian shores in a year and the number held in detention centers has fallen to 1,200 from 2,300 a year ago.