Riots have broken out at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, triggered by the death of Iranian-Kurd detainee Fazal Chegeni. Detainees have stated that the rioters are primarily New Zealand nationals being held at the facility awaiting deportation from Australia, which owns the Christmas Island territory.
Chegeni’s body was found at the base of a cliff on Saturday after he escaped from the Australian-run detention centre that morning. Detainee Matej Cuperka, aged twenty-five, told the Australian Broadcasting Company that
“the death [of the Iranian man] is very, very suspicious. They [the inmates rioting] believe Serco officers did something to him”.
Cuperka states the island went into lockdown following the retrieval of Chegeni’s corpse.
“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”.
New Zealand Labour MP Kelvin Davis claims that some of the detainees “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.” There are reports that guards abandoned the detention centre as detainees tore down fences. The compound has since been called a “disaster zone”.
The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection maintains that order is being restored to the island. Staff have re-entered the central parts of the centre, and food service has commenced. Negotiations have begun with a focus on the provision of medication to those requiring medical assistance. The Department has stated they will remain committed to resolving the situation through negotiation.
The Christmas Island Detention Centre has been subject to unrest since opening in 2003. Refugee campaigners attribute recurring incidents of violence and protest to overcrowding, poor conditions, inhumane detention, and the length of time taken to process applications. In addition to multiple riots since 2009, asylum seekers have staged hunger strikes, refused medical assistance, and damaged property. Global attention was drawn to the centre in May 2011, when asylum seekers sewed their lips together in protest of their detention. This protest was performed as an act of solidarity, following the suicide of an asylum seeker at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Lip- sewing has been a recurring method of protest on Christmas Island.
The Australian Federal Budget, released in May of this year, outlined intentions of winding down detention facilities on Christmas Island. Despite this, the number of detainees has almost tripled over the last five months. Recurring riots on the island beg the plight of detainees not be treated as “out of sight, out of mind”, as it is treated in the Australian political agenda. The death of Chegeni however, is a pertinent reminder of hopelessness at the hands of the punitive regime of detention centres, which too often impede the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees.