CANBERRA: Australian politicians and refugee advocates appealed for calm yesterday after violence and arson attacks swept through detention centres holding asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.
An Immigration Department official said all seven centres on the mainland and a camp on Australia's remote Christmas Island were quiet again by yesterday afternoon after riots and a spate of fires.
Investigations are now ongoing into all these incidents and security has been upgraded, the official said.
As New Year's Eve revellers enjoyed parties and fireworks displays nationwide, police battled an attempted mass breakout and riot at Sydney's Villawood centre, which houses about 540 people who have overstayed visas or breached visa conditions.
Meanwhile, guards at Christmas Island were in a standoff with detained asylum seekers, with fires burning in both centres.
These disturbances followed three days of blazes and a small uprising at four other centres which house all illegal arrivals or people breaching visas while their cases for asylum or to stay in Australia are handled. This can take years.
No one was seriously injured but a number of guards and detainees were treated for smoke inhalation.
The immigration official said guards yesterday transferred seven detainees from the remote Woomera camp in South Australia's desert which houses asylum seekers and 15 detainees from Villawood to local police cells.
We will be looking in the morning at whether to lay charges, he said.
The riots and suspected arson attacks, estimated to have caused around A$8mil (RM17.1mil) worth of damage, were the latest in a string of violence at detention centres.
It again put the spotlight on Australia's hardline stance of detaining all illegal arrivals, including women and children asylum seekers, in guarded camps, a policy condemned by human rights groups and religious leaders.
Refugee advocacy groups and politicians from all sides called for an end to the violence.
Opposition Labour spokeswoman Julia Gillard said the violence would only harden public opinion against asylum seekers.
The fact detention centre staff are now being targeted is the most disturbing thing of all, she said in a statement.
Father Peter Norden, the Catholic chaplain at a Melbourne detention centre, said the unrest was born from frustration and called for the government to look at other options.
But Prime Minister John Howard dismissed the protests, saying he will not be deterred from detaining illegal entrants. Reuters
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