News / Asia

Australia Transfers Asylum Seekers From Troubled Offshore Camp

An activist from the "Refugee Action Coalition" yells out during a rally in Sydney in support of refugees (2010 File)
An activist from the "Refugee Action Coalition" yells out during a rally in Sydney in support of refugees (2010 File)

Unrest at Australia’s largest immigration detention center, at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, has forced the government to transfer inmates to facilities on the mainland. There have been violent disturbances by detainees at the Christmas Island camp during the past week. Protesters say Australian authorities are taking too long to process their refugee applications. 

Police reinforcements regained control of the Christmas Island detention center following unrest last week, but refugee advocates say there is still great tension at the Indian Ocean facility, 2,650 kilometers northwest of Perth in Western Australia.

More than 150 detainees escaped and it is unclear how many remain at large. Two inmates were found hiding in bush land early Tuesday.

The center is overcrowded. It holds about 2,500 asylum seekers, many housed in tents and other temporary accommodation.

There has been a steady stream of mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia’s northern waters in recent months. The majority of asylum seekers who arrive by sea are incarcerated while their refugee claims are investigated.

Opposition lawmaker Scott Morrison accuses the Labor government of losing control of Australia's borders and of mishandling the crisis.

"The government, I think, is incredibly embarrassed about the scale of their failure on Christmas Island," said Morrison. "And, it's clear that no further transfers can be made to Christmas Island when it's in such chaos. I mean, at least probably around 300 beds were burnt to the ground during the riots that took place there last week."

Protesters on Christmas Island are angry at the length of time it is taking the authorities to process their refugee applications. Some are reported to have been waiting for 18 months.   

Australian officials say those responsible for the violence could face criminal charges.

Refugee advocates say conditions at the isolated detention camp are so bad it should be shut down.

In response, the government says it will try to reduce overcrowding on Christmas Island. In the past week, 250 unauthorized arrivals picked up by the Australian navy have been taken to the mainland, where their claims for protection will be processed.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen denies the detention system is breaking down, but concedes there are difficulties.

"I've been very clear that we have had an increase in boat arrivals," said Bowen. "Our detention network has been under pressure for some time. I've acknowledged that, since I became the minister last September, and I've been working to deal with those issues."

In recent days, there have been problems at other Australia detention camps, including a protest at a center near Melbourne. An investigation is underway into the apparent suicide of a 20-year-old Afghan asylum seeker at an immigration facility in Queensland.

Australia grants resettlement visas to about 13,000 refugees each year, under international humanitarian programs. The vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are eventually deemed to be in genuine need of protection, although the issue is politically divisive.

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