News / Asia

Asylum Seekers Torch Australian Detention Center

Five detainees gather on a rooftop of the Villawood Detention Center in Sydney, Australia, April 21, 2011
Five detainees gather on a rooftop of the Villawood Detention Center in Sydney, Australia, April 21, 2011
Phil Mercer

Detainees have set fire to nine buildings at an Australian detention center in what is thought to have been a protest against the rejection of asylum claims.

A night of mayhem at the Villawood immigration facility in Sydney saw firefighters and police pelted with roof tiles and pieces of furniture, while the government in Canberra promised that it would not cave in to violence. A computer room, kitchen, medical facilities and a laundry were among the buildings destroyed.

Protests began late Wednesday, with an estimated 100 detainees involved in the violence. Several buildings were torched, and the center’s unarmed guards were forced to flee. Many of the protesters took to the roofs of the facility’s buildings. At one stage riot police were called in to protect the firefighters.

Those involved are mostly thought to be Iraqis and Iranians whose applications to stay in Australia as refugees are reported to have been rejected. Other inmates have complained about the length of time it is taking Australian authorities to process their asylum applications.

Australian Immigration Department spokesman Sandy Logan says emergency teams faced great hostility as the fires raged out of control within the complex.

"It took some time for the firefighters to be able to gain entry - it wasn't until New South Wales Police Public Order and Riot Squad were here promptly, escorted the firefighters back into the center," said Logan. "They had had roof tiles and other pieces of furniture being hurled at them by some of the detainees, so it was impossible for them to extinguish the blaze in the early hours of the morning. But, with the riot squad protection, they were able to do that."

Australia automatically detains asylum seekers while their claims for refugee status are processed. Many are held on Christmas Island, a remote Indian Ocean territory 2,600 kilometers from Australia’s northwestern coast.

However, a steady increase in the number of people arriving by boat, including many from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, has forced the government to send more detainees to camps on the mainland.

Overcrowding and frustrations about the processing of visa applications have prompted violent disturbances and escapes at several centers in recent weeks, including Villawood in Sydney and on Christmas Island.

Refugee advocates say the protests are an act of desperation by people who are terrified of being sent back to their troubled homelands, while the Australian government is warning that the violence at its immigration facilities will not be tolerated and that criminal charges may follow.

Australia grants protection visas to about 13,000 refugees each year under various international programs.

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