Australian Federal Police are struggling to regain control of the ongoing situation on Christmas Island, as detainees continued their week of protests by burning down accommodation tents, vandalising property and throwing rocks.

Bean bag bullets and tear gas were used for the third time this week, after detainees broke through the North West Point detention centre perimeter fence and started advancing on a AFP line set up to block further breakouts. Armed with several improvised weapons, including rocks, and using accelerants such as aerosol cans, the protesters torched seven marquees used for accommodation and recreation.

There were reports this morning of Molotov cocktails being used, but these were not confirmed by the AFP. Several office dongas used to interview detainees were also burnt down in the melee. The AFP has bolstered its numbers to more than 110 on the island as a response to ongoing protests, which the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) have described as “violent” and “challenging”.

Two people were transferred to the Christmas Island medical centre with minor injuries after the skirmish settled at about midnight, island time. Hundreds of detainees and staff were evacuated after the fire spread throughout the grounds, while some Serco staff were treated for the effects of tear gas and smoke inhalation.

About 250 detainees were involved in last night’s protest, which marked the sixth day of demonstrations. The protests began peacefully last Friday before descending into a breakouts and violent skirmishes on Sunday. AFP members stationed on the island used tear gas and less lethal munitions (bean bag bullets) on that occasion to quell the protests, but the demonstrations have continued.

The protesting asylums seekers are believed to be angry with the amount of time taken to process their applications. In a Senate estimates hearing last month, DIAC revealed that 900 people who have been accepted as genuine refugees were still waiting in detention centres because ASIO has not completed their security checks – a number that has grown from 330 last October. Most of these people are being held on Christmas Island.

DIAC national communications manager Sandi Logan told ABC Radio this morning the protests were a “challenging” situation and the response currently under the leadership of the AFP. Drastic steps — including the use of force — had to be taken to regain control of the centre, he said.

“The AFP went to great lengths to seek to calm a group of around 250 or so protests,” he said. “It would seem [the protesters] were quite intent on causing the maximum disruption and causing the maximum level of violence and property damage that they could inflict on the centre.”

Logan also said that a head count had been held to confirm DIAC suspicions of detainee abscondments. Property damage would be assessed this morning, he said, including the damage to the perimeter fence, which led to the detainees’ escape.

It is unclear how the damaged buildings will affect the accommodation situation on the island. There are  about 1800 detainees being held in North West Point. According to Serco’s contract with DIAC, North West Point has an operational capacity of 400 and a surge capacity of 800. There are currently 2398 detainees on Christmas Island.

Residents on Christmas Island are also believed to be upset with the ongoing situation on Christmas Island. Residents held a community meeting yesterday to express concerns over the response to the protests. In December last year, a boat wreck claimed the lives of at least 50 asylum seekers when it smashed into the rocks at Christmas Island. Many local residents made efforts to try and save the victims.

Logan says the government had to work to win back the trust and confidence of the locals.

“There were some pointed and probing questions from the community,” he told ABC Radio. “We’ve got to work to earn back the trust of the community. They’ve been through a tough time, [but] I don’t believe that they have to fear for their safety.”

On Wednesday, a group of asylum seekers in Northern Immigration Detention Centre held a demonstration on the rooftop of one of their buildings. In a separate protest yesterday, about 100 detainees at the Curtin detention centre near Derby gathered to protest against their treatment.

In August last year, 80 asylum seekers staged a breakout at Northern Immigration Detention Centre. At Villawood in Sydney last September, a group of detainees held a protest on a roof.

A boat carrying 145 suspected asylum seekers arrived yesterday off Australia’s north-west coast and has been taken to Christmas Island for processing. DIAC has also confirmed that a 20-year-old Afghan asylum seeker has been found dead at Scherger Immigration Detention Centre in Weipa, Queensland.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey