Australia’s asylum seeker shame: riots at Christmas Island

09 November 2015 2:53 pm

The big news today is the fallout over the death of a Kurdish-Iranian refugee who had been found dead on Christmas Island, a remote Australian detention centre for asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean. two days after he escaped. The body of Fazel Chegeni was found in bushland on Sunday.

Chegani’s story is striking. Arriving in Australia by boat in 2010, he was determined to be a refugee three years later. After spending time at Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, he was charged with involvement in an assault and then lived in the community of Melbourne. As explained here, he was involved in a fight in a detention centre that saw him bashed despite not actually lifting a finger himself. Video footage showed that to be the case. Despite that, this made him a “person of interest” (no charge or conviction) to the authorities, further elongating his detention.

He was then detained by immigration authorities, taken to Wickham Point in Darwin, and then moved to Christmas Island about 10 weeks ago. Friends told refugee advocates that Chegeni was suffering from serious mental health issues. Not surprisingly, he had grown increasingly anxious about his detention. He had reportedly attempted suicide at least three times in recent weeks.

As a result, riots have broken out at Christmas Island. Detainees have set fire to parts of the complex and ransacked the buildings. There are also reports guards have abandoned the centre and fences have been torn down. According to the ABC, inmates suspect security guards at Serco had done something to Chegani, given his history of attempted suicides.

And in response, there have been roars of silence from Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton. “I’m advised there are no suspicious circumstances in relation to the death,’’ Dutton told Parliament today. But then he would say that

This is all part of a much bigger story. According to the Australian Border Deaths database, there has been an estimated 1974 deaths of people trying to come to Australia.

Let’s be clear about this. The Australian government has a duty of care. Australia, a country created by convicts, is the only western country to lock up refugees in detention camps instead of allowing them to live in the community while their claims are being processed.