Immigration minister Chris Bowen is facing increasing political pressure over the government’s handling of  immigration detention today, after nine buildings were burnt down last night by protesting asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre.

The fires began at around 10 o’clock last night and were only brought under control after riot police moved in to protect firefighters seeking to douse the blaze. Negotiators are still talking down a handful of protesters from the rooftops of the detention centre after the disturbance began. About 100 detainees were involved in the protest at the height of the drama.

According to a Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokesman, nine buildings in the Fowler complex were set alight in the demonstrations, including a medical centre, a kitchen, laundry and computer room. There are currently about 400 detainees at Villawood, with 160 in the Fowler complex.

The latest demonstrations comes after Australia Federal Police (AFP) used tear gas and less-lethal “beanbag” bullets last month to quell protesting detainees on Christmas Island during a week of protests.

Sandi Logan, DIAC national communications manager, told ABC Radio this morning that NSW Police, AFP, riot police, a police rescue squad and the dog squad were all brought in after some detainees had taken to throwing roof tiles at firefighters who were trying to extinguish the flames.

“They had had roof tiles and other pieces of furniture being hurled at them by some of the detainees,” he told ABC Radio. “So it was impossible for them to extinguish the blaze in the early hours of the morning but with the riot squad protection they were able to do that.”

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told a press conference this afternoon that a full investigation will be commissioned to investigate the events at Villawood, including the response by Serco, department officials and the AFP. Bowen said the protests were a “difficult situation”.

“I’m sure some people will say this is due to overcrowding,” he said. “Villawood Detention Centre was actually under capacity. [It has] a capacity of over 400 and under 400 people are accommodated in the detention centre.”

Bowen also refuted suggestions the detainees who took part in the protest had been involved in last month’s Christmas Island disturbance. Many of the protesters had claims rejected, he said, and were trying to change the government’s mind.

“If they think they will change their visa outcome, if they think they will be accepted as refugees because of this sort of protest action, they’ve chosen the wrong government and the wrong minister because that won’t be happening,” he said.

DIAC reserved the right to investigate the character of the protesters when assessing their asylum claims, said Bowen.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott labelled the protester’s actions as “criminal” and called for those responsible to be refused refugee status.

“This is just the latest in a series of criminal acts taking place inside our detention centres,” he said this morning. “It is completely unacceptable and the people who are responsible just should not be given permanent residency of our country.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the protests are the consequence of the federal government’s immigration policy.

“The detention facilities in this country were not set up to deal with this level of polciy failure,” he told ABC TV. “This is a policy fire that this government has been unable to put out.”

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for the Greens, says the protests are distressing and reflect the failure of the government’s immigration system.

“The current detention network is untenable, and when you combine overcrowding, indefinite detention, and stretched resources, it is like a pressure cooker,” she said.

The protests come at the worst possible time for the federal government, as it tries to sell a new detention centre in Tasmania, which is being set up to relieve some of the load on its strained immigration detention program.

Last night DIAC Tasmania state director Doug Walker chaired a community meeting in Pontville, north of Horbart, where locals expressed their misgivings over the $15 million temporary centre, which will accommodate up to 400 adult men.

Angry locals told immigration officials last night that they did not believe the detention centre’s presence would be temporary. Another community member said they feared for their children’s safety. Others were concerned at how detention services provider Serco would respond to an incident similar to the riots on Christmas Island.

A spokesperson for Chris Bowen told Crikey that the Pontville site is only a short-term response to housing asylum seekers, while work is completed on detention accommodation at Wickham Point in Darwin, and Northam in Western Australia.

“We appreciate and understand the concerns of the local community,” the spokeperson said. “This is only planned be a temporary facility, however it will have the required and appropriate security arrangements in place.”

A spokesperson for DIAC told Crikey the meeting was constructive and provided Pontville residents with the opportunity to raise concerns, which will be relayed to the minister.

Serco spokesman Ash Dixon was also called upon to allay some of the fears of those who had attended the meeting. He said he was present during the Christmas Island protests and that “not a person locked their doors”:

“The keys for every car is in the ignition and of all the times, not one person was hurt. Not one thing was stolen. Not one kid was spoken to or harmed in any way. They made a protest and there was a small, small element that caused some trouble. The majority of that element weren’t even to get to stay in Australia because they’d be processed out and were leaving the country.

DIAC says the Serco representative was invited to attend the meeting to address concerns over recruitment and training at the centre. Attendees at the meeting directed questions at Serco, said the spokesperson, however only DIAC responded to matters related to policy.

Meanwhile, Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher announced last week that he will be conducting an investigation into the use of force by the AFP and SERCO in response to last month’s Christmas Island detention centre riots.

Asher has criticised immigration detention operations on Christmas Island in the past. In a report released in February he labelled the centre unsustainable and called for more asylum seekers to be processed on the mainland.

Asher is also considering an investigation into detention facilities and the extent to which DIAC and SERCO have worked to manage detainees at risk of suicide.

Peter Fray

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