PROTESTING asylum seekers on Christmas Island have thrown rocks at Australian Federal Police officers, prompting the use of tear gas for the second time in three days.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed last night’s confrontation, but denied reports that ringleaders of previous protests had been flown off the island to Darwin earlier in the day.
“There was a protest. There were rocks thrown at the Australian Federal Police and the AFP used tear gas in response to that,” Mr Bowen said today.
Around 250 detainees were involved in the latest confrontation after they staged a march carrying banners with the word “Freedom”, an Immigration Department spokeswoman said.
She said no AFP officers or staff were hurt, but one detainee was treated for minor breathing difficulties after tear gas was used.
The confrontation follows one early on Monday when AFP officers used gas and “beanbag bullets” after around 300 detainees rioted and damaged fences and doors.
One detainee suffered a suspected broken leg, which prompted Mr Bowen to order an independent inquiry into the riot.
Today, he said that about 100 detainees were flown to a Darwin detention centre yesterday but no protest ringleaders were among them.
“Reports that we’ve moved off troublemakers or people who have been organising the protests on Christmas Island are just not correct,” he told ABC radio.
“We don’t reward people who’ve been involved in organising or rabble rousing.”
Mr Bowen said those flown to Darwin included detainees who had been on the island the longest and people who had been accepted as refugees and were waiting on paperwork.
Others were classed as emotionally vulnerable, including people who did not like the protests and wanted to be moved away, he said.
“Clearly, we do need to reduce the numbers on Christmas Island, clearly we do need to do that as part of our response to this issue,” he said.
Mr Bowen said numbers at the centre were 2500 and falling, compared with more than 3000 detainees on the island in December.
He said protests would not speed up the processing of asylum claims, only slow them down.
“As we have increasing rejection rates of refugee claims, we are going to see this sort of protest action from time to time – people protesting that they’re not being accepted as refugees.”
Following reinforcement in recent days, more than 80 AFP officers are on the island to help the centre’s private operator, Serco, with security.
Mr Bowen said he understood the concerns of people in the town of Northam, east of Perth, where a 1500-bed detention centre was due to open mid-year at a disused army camp.
“We’ll make sure the security at Northam is appropriate,” he said, noting that 50 residents had been signed up as security guards.