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Asylum seekers torch Australian center

by Staff Writers
Sydney (UPI) Apr 22, 2011
Criminal charges could be filed against detainees who rioted and caused a fire that destroyed nine buildings at an Australian immigration center.

Australian federal police are investigating the protest that turned into a riot by up to 100 of the 400 detainees at the Villawood Detention Center in Sydney, causing millions of dollars of damages.

The riots highlighted the country's the problem of handling an ever-increasing number of asylum seekers, many of whom arrive in Australian waters on rickety small boats after having paid notorious people smugglers in Asia, notably Indonesia, for the dangerous sea voyage.

Many of the asylum seekers -- more than 5,000 in 2010 -- are Tamils from Sri Lanka, as well as Afghanis, Iraqis and Kurds.

Rioting at Villawood began at 9 p.m. Wednesday when a group of mainly Kurdish and Afghan detainees set fire to furniture outside accommodation buildings. The protesters soon swelled in numbers and gained access to several roofs where they held off police during the night as other buildings burned.

At one stage the detainees were throwing roof tiles at emergency services personnel who were trying to put out the fire, Department of Immigration spokesman Sandi Logan said on Channel 10 television news.

It was "miraculous" that no one was injured, including immigration staff, emergency services people and employees of Serco, the private facilities management provider running the center, he said.

"We're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage, a medical center that's gone up in flames, a dining hall and a kitchen," Logan said.

A former Serco guard, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the private company doesn't train staff properly.

"From what I've seen of the new recruits, they were basically put on the floor no training whatsoever, they were being told that they were being trained as they worked, that's never happened before," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Lateline" news program. "They're meant to go through at least a minimum six-week course and then a year of on-the-job training."

Investigators headed to the center after having spent a week at a detention center on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, where they were looking into similar riots that took place last month.

"This action is not only completely unacceptable, but it is very clearly potentially criminal," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told reporters.

Most of the roof-top protesters had had their refugee claims rejected.

Bowen said, "Australians have a right to be angry at those who have conducted this sort of damage," and he said he shares that anger.

"If they think they will be accepted as refugees because of this sort of protest action, they have chosen the wrong government and the wrong minister because that won't be happening," Bowen said.

But Bowen rejected opposition party calls for a broader inquiry into the detention system, saying he was extending the terms of reference for an independent inquiry examining the Christmas Island riots to include the Villawood riot.

Last month more than 200 rioters set fire to buildings in an attempt to escape from the crowded Christmas Island center. Police fired non-lethal bean-bag rounds and tear gas canisters to control the rioters who charged security guards with bricks and poles.

Two asylum seekers were taken to hospital, one with chest injuries and another suffering chest pains. Some escaped but were captured on the isolated island, an Australian territory 750 miles from the mainland.

Because it lies 180 miles from Indonesia, people smugglers target the island as a place to unload their human cargo.

Australia set up its main asylum-seeker detention center on the island but last year started shipping detainees to the mainland to other purpose-built centers including Villawood.

Successive Australian governments have talked with leaders in Asia about criminalizing people smuggling, where the smugglers take money in exchange for a one-way boat trip to Australian waters and promising entry into the country.

The Indonesian Parliament, long criticized by the Australian government for being soft on people smugglers, last month passed a bill making people smuggling illegal.

Convicted people smugglers could be jailed for up to 15 years and government officials who receive bribes to turn a blind eye to the crime face up to five years in jail. Convicted smugglers also face a fine of up to $170,000.

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