| The Woomera detention centre, 500 km north of Adelaide, after two sections were set on fire by refugees. (AFP)
Sydney, Dec. 31 (Reuters): Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres were in turmoil today, with an attempted mass breakout and riot in a Sydney centre, an armed stand off at another and fires burning in two.
The breakout attempt by 20 to 30 people at the Villawood detention centre in western Sydney occured at 10.30 pm (1130 GMT), with police saying inmates started fires and attacked guards with iron bars. “Things are still happening. We have not been able to do a head count,” a police spokesman said.
Nearby residents said smoke was pouring from the centre from what fire brigade officials said were six fires. A centre official told local media that scores of detainees were rioting in another section of Villawood.
“Between 60 and 80 detainees were rioting in a separate section and there are police on the scene,” the official told Australian Associated Press.
The spokesman said 20 detainees had earlier attempted to break out by commandeering a car and attempting to ram through the perimeter gates at the centre. A police vehicle blocking the gates stopped the escape attempt.
On Australia’s remote Christmas Island, boat people occupied a detention centre compound, setting fire to a dining hall and challenging guards in an armed stand-off, officials said.
“Detainees armed with pipes and other weapons have occupied one of the compounds on Christmas Island and set the dining hall on fire,” said immigration department spokeswoman Jenny Hoskin. She said she was not aware of any injuries to either the centre’s guards or to the detainees on the island, 2,400 km west of Darwin, but just 550 km south of Jakarta. “And we’re certainly not aware of any guns being used.”
Spotlight on policy
The latest violence, which has swept through most of Australia’s seven detention centres in recent days, has again shone a spotlight on Australia’s hardline 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.
Despite the spate of revolts, Prime Minister John Howard said his government would not be deterred from detaining illegal immigrants or from diverting boats carrying mainly Afghan and West Asian asylum seekers to Pacific islands.
Both policies have been sharply criticised by international human rights groups and the UN. “If anybody thinks they can alter our policy by setting fire to detention centres then they are wrong. That won’t alter our policy one iota,” Howard told a Sydney radio station.
The protest on the Indian Ocean island came less than 24 hours after detainees staged similar action at an outback detention centre, where staff fled attacks by asylum seekers armed with metal bars and stones.
“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.
Blazes at the desert Woomera camp in South Australia destroyed or damaged 43 buildings before they were finally brought under control. The Woomera damage bill is expected to reach A$7.5 million ($4.2 million).
No one was seriously injured in the disturbance but some staff and detainees were treated on site for smoke inhalation.
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.
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.