Riots Erupt at an Australian Detention Center Over a Refugee's Death

Guards at the Christmas Island detention center have reportedly abandoned their posts as a fire burns and detainees tear down fences.
November 9, 2015, 12:00am

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Guards at the Christmas Island detention center have reportedly abandoned their posts following the outbreak of riots today. The disturbance was triggered by the death of Kurdish-Iranian detainee Fazel Chegeni on Sunday. Mr Chegeni had recently escaped the center before his body was found at the bottom of cliffs by Australian Federal Police officers. The cause of his death is currently unknown.

The Immigration Department hasn't released any details about how the riots started, but reports from individuals inside the center have begun to form a picture of the escalating events. Detainees were allegedly called into a meeting and told that Mr Chegeni's body had been found "in the jungle" and he had been dead for "some time." According to Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson, the news triggered panic. When a detainee attempted to ask a guard for more information, he was punched in the face.

New Zealand detainee Lester Hohua detailed the situation to the ABC, saying it went "haywire" and people were ripping panels off the walls because "nobody wants to be locked down anymore." He added that the officers were allegedly forced to leave the center.

The report of guards fleeing was corroborated by Ricky Downs, another New Zealand detainee. He told ONE News that guards had "freaked out and left" as fires broke out across the property. Explaining the scene now he said, "There's not security, there's no response team, there's not border control, no guards."

About 40 New Zealand citizens are housed in the center facing deportation from Australia.

At this stage, it's believed that the canteen has been burned down and fences and walls have been demolished in some parts of the center. Despite this, an anonymous male detainee told the ABC detainees weren't fleeing because "we've got nowhere to go."

Since news of the riots broke out, the Refugee Action Coalition have released additional information about the man whose death triggered the response. Fazel Chegeni had been detained for five years, and was found to be a refugee two and a half years ago. While housed in the Curtin detention center, he was involved in a fight between detainees and charged with assault. He was briefly released in Melbourne, but re-detained after a few months because of his previous assault charge. He had been at the Christmas Island detention center for 10 weeks and had reportedly told others he could no longer stand being in detention.

Refugee advocate Pamela Curr was in touch with Mr Chegeni when he was in detention and during his time in Melbourne. She described him as a "gentle man" and told The West Australian that before coming to Australia he had been jailed and tortured in Iran. She also said his previous assault charge was unfair, as he'd only been defending himself during an attack.

This morning, spokespersons for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's said they're working to resolve the situation and are "committed to providing a safe and secure environment for detainees, and maintaining the good order of detention facilities." They've confirmed they will refer any criminal offenses onto police. They have also maintained there have been no injuries and the perimeter was secure, but would provide no further comment. They wouldn't confirm whether or not guards had abandoned the center.

Fazel Chegeni's death will be investigated by a coroner.

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