Christmas Island: Riot at Australian detention camp after refugee’s death

One detainee is receiving medical treatment following the riot

10 Nov – A riot has erupted at a controversial offshore refugee-detention facility in Australia following the death of an asylum seeker.

Immigration officers and refugees confirmed on Monday a standoff between detainees and officers at the detention camp on Christmas Island, located more than 2,000km northwest of Perth in the Indian Ocean, after a Kurdish Iranian refugee died there.

Fazel Chegeni, in his 30s, was reportedly found at the bottom of a cliff.

“On Saturday morning [November 7] the department was advised of the escape of an illegal maritime arrival from Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre [CI IDC] by service provider staff.

“The matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police who commenced a search and discovered a deceased person today [November 8],” the Australian government said in a news release.

The Department of Immigration said staff and security have been withdrawn for security purposes and denied a large scale riot was taking place.

“The protest action began when a small group of Iranian detainees took part in a peaceful protest following the escape from, and death outside the centre, of a detainee on Sunday,” its news release said.

Currently, there are about 285 asylum-seekers at the Christmas Island camp. Section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act permits the deportation of a non-Australian citizen who fails the “character test”, the portal for which includes any prison sentence longer than 12 months.

A member of RISE, a rights group campaigning for refugee rights in Melbourne, said refugees heard the Iranian man screaming for help, then later saw him in a body bag.

“The detention centre detains asylum-seekers under administrative detention methods, just like Guantanamo and just like Palestinian prisoners in Israel,” she told Al Jazeera over the phone.

“These cases cannot be taken to court and the refugee him or herself sometimes does not know what they are doing there.

“They could claim they are investigating the asylum seeker, but in the end it is punishment.

“Those who arrive by boat are not allowed to have mobile phones with them, but those who arrive by plane are.

“And if they manage to sneak in mobile phones, security does random checks where they take them away.

“Between 2010 and 2011, there were five deaths in eight months in a detention centre in the suburbs of Sydney.

“Two detention centres were destroyed following that.

“The government does not learn from its past experiences.”

Twenty-five-year-old detainee Matej Cuperka told the ABC that ex-convicts who had their Australian visas cancelled after serving time in jail started the riot.

“The death [of the Iranian man] is very, very suspicious,” he said.

“They [the inmates who are rioting] believe Serco officers did something to him.

“I clearly heard him in the morning screaming for help, and the next thing I see they be bringing him in a body bag, and after that the whole place went into lockdown.

“About 30 people started a fight with the emergency response team in front of the medical [clinic] where officers left their stations and put the place in lockdown.”

“They are setting fires everywhere,” Mr Cuperka added.

“They started [on Sunday night]. They have broken into the canteen, into the property area, they started fires over there and now they starting in the compound.

“There are cars full of officers driving around the complex. They are just having a look through the window,

Another detainee, who stressed that he had not been involved in the riots, said “most of the compounds have actually been broken into, including the medical [compound]”.

“The canteen, I can see from where I’m standing now, has been completely ransacked and is burning as I speak to you,” he said.

“It’s a complete disaster zone.

“The compound that I’m in … there’s a lot of spot fires in there, all the cameras have been smashed up, all the kitchen has been smashed up, the offices have been breached and all the computers and everything has been broken up.”

The Immigration Department said the camp’s perimeter had not been breached and “the department and its service providers [were] working together to resolve the situation”.

Mr Dutton said there had been an initial response by Serco officers and there would be “further responses from the appropriate authorities either negotiating or dealing with those people who have caused disturbances there”.

The Christmas Island camp also houses New Zealand citizens being deported from Australia, as well as asylum seekers.

New Zealand Labour MP Kelvin Davis said he had been told detainees had “taken over the detention centre”.

“I’m hearing that the guards have exited the detention centre, that fences have been torn down and that detainees in the segregated area are mixing with the mainstream detainees,” he told the ABC.

“Some of them have been on that island for four, five years and, quite frankly, everyone’s sick of being treated like animals and right now they’re turning around and biting.”

Mr Davis said he had been told at least one detainee had overdosed and the Emergency Response Team had taken 20 minutes to reach him.

“He told me about an asylum seeker who had taken an overdose of drugs. They were trying to get medical help for this guy, 20 minutes, and finally the Emergency Response Team managed to drag this guy out.

“I would like to think the authorities would take a step back and look to negotiate because I don’t think these guys really want to riot… they would like a peaceful resolution of the situation, they certainly don’t want to end up getting beaten up by the riot squad.

“A number of people have gone back to their individual cells and they are barricading themselves in.”

Mr Davis said detainees on the island had told him they were angry about what they believed was a “cover-up” of the truth about how the man died.

Last week, human teeth were found in a meal served to an asylum seeker in the Manus Island detention centre, just a few days after almost 100 asylum seekers reportedly suffered from food poisoning.

Speaking to Al Jazeera over phone on Saturday, Ian Rintoul, an Australian refugee advocate who is in touch with asylum-seekers on the island, said asylum seekers managed to call activists and inform them human teeth were found in a lunch meal served to a refugee.

The Australian government’s Department of Immigration announced on Twitter that it is investigating the reports.

“A few days ago over 100 asylum-seekers and staff members were poisoned from the food at the Manus detention centre,” Rintoul said.

“There has been constant problems with the food there. Refugees have complained about the quality of the food such as the smell from the meat provided.

“Refugees have also found flies and insects in their food several times.

“There are constant problems in these detention centres. Water is one of them. The sewage goes out to the bay and, if it rains, it washes up on the compound.

“The toilets are mostly non-functional too.”

Rintoul said asylum-seekers find ways to contact refugee advocates and inform them of these issues, but of late attacks and raids on the centres have been mounted to confiscate the refugees’ phones.

“Nothing will change. The problems are created by the detention centres themselves,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Tensions have not been resolved since Reza Barati was killed in 2014. The Australian government has embarked on a brutal system.”

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