One dead, 77 hurt in riot at PNG immigration centre

Martin Parry
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An undated photo obtained from the Refugee Action Coalition on February 18, 2014 shows a man walking between tents at Australia's regional processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea

One person was killed and 77 injured as tensions boiled over during a second night of violence at an Australian immigration detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, officials said Tuesday.

Thirty-five asylum-seekers broke out of the same facility on Sunday evening, with several hurt, as unrest flared about their fate under the Australian government's hardline policies.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said there had been a rolling series of largely peaceful protests, starting a few weeks ago, that culminated in the violence of the last two nights.

Monday's unrest began when detainees pushed down internal barriers in the camp and the riot "escalated quickly with several hundred transferees" rushing to dismantle external fencing.

Security staff used shields to push back the mob while PNG police mobilised to capture those who had escaped, firing at least two shots, Morrison said, before order was restored.

"The news of a death is a great tragedy," he said, adding that the man died from a head injury en route to hospital.

"This is a tragedy but this was a very dangerous situation where people decided to protest in a very violent way and to take themselves outside the centre and place themselves at great risk."

Of the 77 injured, 12 remain in a serious condition, mostly with head injuries including one with a fractured skull. Another suffered gunshot wounds to the buttocks.

Morrison said it was not yet clear how they received the injuries.

Manus Island is one of two remote Pacific camps used by Canberra in its punitive offshore detention policy.

Under the scheme, aimed at deterring people-smugglers, any asylum-seeker arriving by boat or intercepted at sea is transferred to Manus or Nauru for processing.

If they are judged to be genuine refugees, they will only be offered permanent resettlement outside Australia.

The United Nations refugee agency has condemned the camps as "harsh" facilities that "impact very profoundly on the men, women and children housed there".

Morrison said that despite the unrest, the immigration centre had not been destroyed and was still operating.

- 'Fled for their lives' -

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said tension with groups of locals, who oppose the camp, had been building throughout the day. He said the attacks began after power was cut to the detention centre.

He alleged the perimeter fences were breached, after staff were evacuated, by locals armed with machetes, pipes, sticks and stones who carried out "savage attacks".

"If there are asylum-seekers outside the perimeter fence it's because they've fled for their lives late last night from those attacks," Rintoul told ABC television.

"It must be clear now that asylum-seekers cannot live safely on Manus Island. They should never have been taken there. Asylum-seekers must be brought to Australia," he added.

This account was denied by Morrison, who said it "is not consistent with the reports I have received".

He added that security contractor G4S "have advised that there was no one who came from outside and sought to disrupt or attack people on the inside which led to the perimeter fence being breached".

Morrison had earlier rejected reports that PNG police were involved and cautioned against "unsubstantiated reports that may be put into the public domain".

The riots follow a tense meeting between detainees and officials from Papua New Guinea's immigration and citizenship authority to discuss their fate if they were found to have a genuine refugee claim.

They were informed they would be resettled in PNG and "a third country option will not be offered".

"They will have frustrations about being in a centre they don't wish to be in because they wanted a very different outcome than being in either Manus Island or Nauru," Morrison said.

"There will be those who will seek to take down our policies, to take down our processing centres, to try and destroy the regime we have put in place."