When is a riot not a riot? When it’s in an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island and the government doesn’t want to look like it has lost control.

It began on Sunday with the report of the death of Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker Fazal Chegeni, who had escaped from the Christmas Island immigration detention centre on Saturday, and whose body was discovered at the base of a cliff on Sunday. His death is not believed to be suspicious but is still being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.

At the time of reporting the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has provided five “operational updates” on the “disturbance” that has followed since Chegeni’s death. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed yesterday that the “disturbance” began at around 11pm on Sunday, and at 8am on Monday the department said there were “reports of damage inside the centre [but] its perimeter remains secure” and there were no injuries. By the second update at 1pm Monday, this had been upgraded to a “major disturbance” — but it was not a “large scale riot”.

“The centre remains tense, and staff have been withdrawn from compounds for safety reasons,” the department said.

The department said a small group of Iranian detainees had conducted a peaceful protest in reaction to Chegeni’s death on Sunday, but other detainees “took advantage of the situation” and had set a number of fires in the detention centre.

Dutton said in question time yesterday there were 203 people in detention on Christmas Island, and the department has said the majority of these are people whose visas have been cancelled, some on character grounds. Dutton told Sky News that many were “very serious criminals” and only those considered to be “medium to high risk” were sent to Christmas Island.

“We have some very serious criminals that are in the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, people with serious backgrounds, having committed manslaughter, members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, those who have committed serious assaults, indecent assault on children. So there are some significant criminals within the centre, and we want to make sure that control can be regained as quickly as possible, and order restored.”

The third and fourth updates talked of the ongoing negotiations, but by update five this morning, it was clear that the situation was far from under control:

“Service provider staff are continuing to negotiate with detainees engaged in protest activity and are methodically re-entering and securing control of compounds within the centre … Those in contact with detainees on Christmas Island are encouraged to inform them to return to their rooms if safe to do so, and to follow the directions of service provider staff.”

A number of the detainees are from New Zealand, and many of the reports on the ground from those in detention have gone to media in New Zealand. The reports from those detainees come in stark contrast to the reports from the government. Detainees have claimed that although they tried to negotiate with government contractor Serco, negotiations did not take place.

Detainee Ricardo Young told Radio New Zealand armed guards in riot gear were preparing to storm the detention centre:

“They’re all at the fence, they’re going to come in. They’re just waiting to see what they’re going do … Everyone’s scared for their life. There’s all drones all over the place, it’s all happening here. The place is all on fire  … It’s very unsafe, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Young reportedly said Serco had no interest in negotiating.

“They’ve pretty much said that they want war, so at the end of the day they’re declaring it. Serco’s declaring it.”

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said as of 2.30am Christmas Island time, guards had not yet attempted to re-enter the centre, but TV had been cut off, and police had been telling detainees via megaphone to dump weapons and return to their rooms. Rintoul said in a press release:

“The government talks about ‘restoring order’ in the centre, but restoring order to the riot police and Serco’s Emergency Response Team will only mean a return of the brutal rule of force inside the detention centre, that led to the explosion on Christmas Island.

“The ‘behavioural management’ regime inside Christmas Island is reminiscent of the behaviour familiar in Guantanamo Bay. It relies on solitary confinement, 24 hour surveillance, denial of access to a phone or the internet and systemic force, reprisals, and beatings by the Serco guards of anyone who they consider steps out of line.”

The communications disconnect between what detainees are saying and what the government is reporting is reminiscent of the March 2011 riot in the Christmas Island detention centre under the then-Labor government, with then-immigration minister Chris Bowen downplaying the riots at the centre.

Labor’s current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is currently walking a fine line. He has called for the government to be more transparent about what is happening on Christmas Island, but due to Labor supporting many of the government’s policies on immigration, has stopped short of criticising the government for current policy. Marles said in a press release yesterday:

“The government needs to immediately provide an assurance that people within this facility are safe. There needs to be greater transparency of all Australian funded facilities. Labor would put in place independent oversight of all Australian funded facilities.”

It comes as one person claiming to be a former Serco guard on Christmas Island made a number of allegations about his former employer and the facilities in the detention centre in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” post last night. He alleged officer safety was a low priority for Serco, and detainees often run the show, as detainees outnumber the guards.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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