Trouble on Christmas Island

The death of an escaped detainee sparked what the authorities have carefully labeled a “major disturbance” but not a “riot.”

Trouble on Christmas Island
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr-DIAC

On Sunday, a detainee at Australia’s Christmas Island detention center was founded dead at the bottom of a cliff. The death sparked what Australian authorities have called a “major disturbance” at the facility, though the latest updates indicate that the situation has calmed. The events however, serve to highlight Australia’s immigration and detention policies that have come under increased criticism.

Fazel Chegeni, an Iranian Kurd, reportedly escaped from the detention facility on Friday. According to the Department of Immigration and Border Control, a group of other Iranians at the facility staged a peaceful protest, but “[w]hile peaceful protest is permissible, other detainees took advantage of the situation to engage in property damage and general unrest.” Official reports note that there were some “small fires” at the center.

While the Australian authorities have maintained that there was “no large scale riot,” other sources have painted a different picture. A detainee from New Zealand at the facility told a Buzzfeed reporter that “Everything’s on fire.” The source linked the unrest to anger over Chegeni’s death. The Sydney Morning Herald also spoke to a detainee, who said “Everything is burnt. The medical centre is burnt. The canteen is burnt. It’s havoc – we’ve had enough.”

While the authorities have not commented on the cause of Chegeni’s death, detainees have said that they heard guards pursuing a man who had escaped. One, quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald, said, “We heard him screaming. I think they were chasing him through the jungle. Then the screams just stopped.”

There are about 203 men at the Christmas Island facility, according to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Of those, the BBC reported, about 40 are New Zealanders awaiting deportation after losing their visas for committing crimes. Immigration said in an update on the situation that the majority of those detained on Christmas Island were men whose visas had been cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act. A second group includes men who arrived as “illegal maritime arrivals” ie “boat people,” and the remainder are those who have overstayed their visas.

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According to the Refugee Action Coalition, Chegeni had been at the Christmas Island facility for about 10 weeks. Their report indicates that he was in and out of Australia’s immigration system, spending time at other detention facilities and in Melbourne before being transferred to Christmas Island. “Like so many others,” PAC writes,  “Fazel was suffering the effects of long-term, arbitrary detention.”

Australia has been targeted with scathing criticism from human rights organizations which say its detention policies are “a disaster.” Australia maintains several facilities, most controversially on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific where those trying to reach Australia but caught in transit are kept.

Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for RAC was quoted by CNN saying that “the guards abandoned the detention center at 11 p.m. last night.” He continued, saying that “The refugees are now expecting the inevitable, which is either the arrival of the Australian Federal Police or the armed Serco Emergency Response Team.” Serco is a British outsourcing company that runs Australia’s immigration detention centers.

According to Immigration, however, in a 9:00 PM local time update Monday night, “Service provider staff have re-entered and maintain control of central facilities of the centre, including the administration areas and health clinic. The perimeter of the centre remains secure, with regular patrols.”

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Gordon, political editor of The Age, argued that Chegeni’s death is not an isolated occurrence. “This is one of a spate of recent deaths by asylum seekers in detention, or in the community on bridging visas, that demand a broader and independent review of the detention network,” he wrote. It’s unclear if the trouble on Christmas Island will end up prompting such a review.