Extra police sent after Christmas Island detention centre riots

A riot at the Christmas Island detention centre involved detainees burning buildings and pelting AFP officers with rocks.

In response, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has warned rioters they could jeopardise their bid to be resettled in Australia.

Around 200 asylum seekers were involved in last night’s violence during which Australian Federal Police (AFP) used tear gas and “bean-bag bullets”.

Police said the rioters carried “accelerant-based weapons”, poles, bricks, pavers, concrete blocks and a wheelie bin full of rocks.

Following mass break-outs and two other riots earlier in the week, the situation remains tense, with some sort of protest now a nightly occurrence.

Many workers have been withdrawn from the centre and the break-outs and rioting have heightened anxiety among island residents.

But Defence Minister Stephen Smith today ruled out using the military to restore order.

He said handling unrest on the island was a matter for the Immigration Department and its contractors in the first instance.

“But when we see such contemptible violence, which we condemn, from time to time it’s necessary to call on the assistance of the Australian Federal Police,” Mr Smith said.

AFP Deputy Commissioner of National Security Steve Lancaster today said police “should be able to deal with the incidents that could occur tonight”.

“I believe we have the appropriate tools and people in place, with specialist capabilities and general duties, to deal with what we have before us.”

An extra 70 police were on their way to the island today, to bolster their number to 188.

Mr Bowen said the majority of the 2398 detainees were distancing themselves from the rioters’ “unacceptable behaviour”.

He said the events made it necessary to reduce the number of detainees on the island, already down from a peak of more than 3000.

“But, clearly, this reduction now needs to be expedited,” he said, adding 105 detainees would leave the island today and more tomorrow to mainland detention centres.

Mr Bowen warned that the Migration Act allowed character to be taken into account when granting a visa.

“This will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but character considerations will be taken into account of those on Christmas Island that have organised and perpetrated this sort of activity,” he told reporters.

With Christmas Island outside Australia’s migration zone, Mr Bowen said, it was also necessary for him to “lift the bar” for those applying for a protection visa if they were regarded as a genuine refugee.

“I will be doing that very seriously on a case-by-case basis in relation to anybody who has participated in this sort of activity,” he said.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the federal government needed to send rioters a clear message it was in control.

To punish asylum seekers involved in breakouts and other “abhorrent” behaviour, Mr Morrison suggested the government suspend their applications for refugee status.

“Whether as a ringleader or as a participant, that potential sanction should be available and should be under consideration.”

Mr Morrison said the sanction of refusing a visa on general character grounds was something the coalition had been asking the government to use for some time.

Last night, a small number of asylum seekers and staff suffered minor effects from tear gas and two detainees were taken to hospital, one with chest injuries.

Mr Lancaster said it was being investigated whether a “bean-bag” round had broken the leg of a detainee during the first riot early on Monday.

Christmas Island Shire President Gordon Thomson said centre workers who had been trapped in the unrest until police regained control were shocked and exhausted by the events.

He said many residents were anxious about safety following the security breaches and police had advised people to lock their house and car doors, something that was not part of island lifestyle.

Mr Thomson said immigration officials had told residents the government was taking steps to address asylum seeker grievances, including speeding up processing of security clearances.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul has called for federal police to be withdrawn to reduce tensions.

“It is obvious the use of force by police is leading to escalating tension and confrontation,” he said.

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