Rioting Migrants Try to Flee Australian Camp
CANBERRA (Reuters) by Belinda Goldsmith - Authorities fired water cannon to disperse up to 60 asylum seekers trying to break out of one of Australia's controversial camps for illegal immigrants in a third consecutive night of rioting, officials said Thursday.
An Immigration Department spokeswoman said detainees, armed with bed frames, metal poles and other makeshift weapons, tore through an internal fence shortly before midnight at Woomera, the biggest and most isolated of Australia's six detention centers.
Extra police were drafted in to control the masked protesters who pelted detention staff with rocks.
``At about midnight about 50 to 60 detainees breached internal security fencing and attempted to breach the external fencing,'' the spokeswoman told Reuters.
``Water cannon were used to disperse the detainees and they are all now back in their compound.''
The riots are the latest in a string of violence and escapes at the South Australian desert camp at Woomera which houses about 1,000 mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers who arrived illegally.
Up to 300 detainees have gone on the rampage this week, yelling ``visa, visa, visa'' as they set fire to 21 buildings in the compound, using aerosol cans converted into flame-throwers, and injuring 21 staff by throwing rocks and other missiles.
But the Immigration Department said other detainees had become increasingly frustrated with the violence by a minority and the numbers involved in the protests were dwindling. ``Detainees from two compounds indicated they did not wish to continue with further demonstrations,'' the spokeswoman said.
The violence has again thrown the spotlight on Australia's hard line of detaining anyone arriving in the country illegally or overstaying visas in secure camps while their applications to stay are handled, which can take years.
Australia has one of the world's toughest regimes for dealing with illegal arrivals and is criticized by human rights groups for automatically detaining asylum seekers, including women and children, but the policy has strong support among Australians.
Currently 2,354 people are in detention in Australia, the number falling since August when the country toughened its stand and started turning away a rising tide of boats carrying asylum seekers, diverting them to Pacific nations.
Despite criticism the government remains resolute it will decide who comes to Australia -- and it has overwhelming public support, with resentment over the number of boat people, which has risen to 5,000 a year from just a few hundred five years ago. The Immigration Department spokeswoman said the latest violence at Woomera had prompted a freeze on visa processing as well as a review of security at the camp, located in barren desert about 297 miles north of Adelaide.
``Until it's safe for staff to go in there and resume interviewing, they won't be processing applications,'' she said. Police are investigating the recent violence and criminal charges could be laid against detainees found to be involved. But human rights and refugee advocacy groups said it was not enough to just tighten security again at Woomera, blaming its harsh location for exacerbating tension in the remote center.
The United Nations (news - web sites) Association of Australia called for an independent group of church and community leaders to be sent into Woomera to find out the reasons for the riots. ``Clearly there's a complaint or we wouldn't have this devastating situation,'' spokeswoman Margaret Reynolds told Reuters. ``We're very concerned about women and children, especially the families who are not associated with this violence.''