Unrest in one of Australia’s offshore migrant and refugee detention centers has renewed scrutiny over the country’s handling of asylum seekers.
“Americans have a problem with guns,” Pamela Curr, a spokeswoman with Autralia’s Asylum Seeker Resource Center told the BBC, “and Australia has a problem with boats."
Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Indonesia and other countries are being detained in “Christmas Island,” a remote location in the Indian Ocean. In 2006 Australian authorities built a center there with 800 beds.
The center is home to refugees and migrants who have recently tried to travel to Australia by boat. It is also home to hundreds who have had their visas cancelled or face deportation.
On Sunday, the death of an Iranian-Kurd detainee caused a standoff with security guards and sparked protests and fires which lasted until Monday afternoon.
The body of Iranian asylum seeker Fazel Chegeni was found at the bottom of the island's cliffs on Sunday, authorities said in a written statement. The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Center reported him missing Saturday.
While police said Chegeni’s death was not treated as suspicious, several detainees told local media they believed security guards were involved in his death.
As a result of growing suspicion surrounding his death, a group of Iranian detainees decided to take part in a peaceful protest but the situation quickly escalated.
“While peaceful protest is permissible, other detainees took advantage of the situation to engage in property damage and general unrest,” and “a number of small fires have been lit within the center," Australia's Immigration and Border Protection Department said in a statement.
Many were affected by the protests, with immigration authorities confirming that a number of detainees with preexisting medical conditions had been without medication for some time.
Access to the center is difficult because journalists are not often authorized to travel there and workers on the island are restricted in what they can say publicly.
Significant damage at the camp, including at the medical facility, was reported by local media who believe at least 200 inmates took part in the protest.
Immigration authorities, however, denied in a written statement reports of a large scale "riot" and said on Monday that the “perimeter of the center remains secure with regular patrols.”
The existence of the holding camp, along with others in Papua New Guinea and in the South Pacific, has come under fire from international human rights organizations.
“Australian officials love to laud its effectiveness in dealing with asylum seekers but the policy has come at an enormous human cost,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent written statement.