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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 08:37 GMT
Migrants set fire to Australian camp
A young boy wanders through the burnt out ruins of the Woomera detention centre for illegal immigrants
Fires destroyed new buildings at the camp
Asylum seekers have been rioting at a detention centre in Australia, setting fire to 15 buildings and destroying at least five.

The unrest, at the remote Woomera detention centre in South Australia, is the worst of a series of incidents at the camp in the past 18 months.


If they think that by setting light to buildings they are going to get visas, they are sadly mistaken

Daryl Williams
Acting Immigration Minister
An eyewitness described staff fleeing as a wall of fire jumped from building to building, over the course of three hours.

The protesters, who come mainly from the Middle East and central Asia, chanted "Visa, Visa, Visa" as they rampaged through the camp.

Government officials say the damage will run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fires destroyed three, new purpose-built accommodation facilities, a dining hall and a computing facility.

The owner of a nearby petrol station, Dave Kirby, said the riot began with a series of gas-bottle explosions late on Monday evening.

Fire at Woomera camp, August 2000
There was a riot at the same camp last August
"They were throwing rocks, smashing windows, yelling and screaming, then the huge explosions started and the fires," he said.

There were no reports of any injuries among the 946 asylum seekers at the camp, but an unnamed government spokesman said 15 officers were treated for smoke inhalation.

"Once fires were under way, detainees congregated and threw rocks, chairs and other objects at detention staff in an effort to stop staff and local fire brigade officers from putting out the first [fire]" the spokesman said in a statement.

"For a short time all staff were removed from the centre due to fears for their safety."

He said asylum seekers blocked one officer from moving to safety and the officer had to be helped by other staff.

'Outrageous'

Australia's acting Immigration Minister, Daryl Williams, said that people were sadly mistaken if they thought setting fire to buildings was the way to get a visa.

"It's outrageous that Commonwealth property should be dealt with in such a way," he said.


The problems have a lot to do with the location because you feel you could be on the moon out there

Margaret Piper
Refugee Council of Australia

Head of the Refugee Council of Australia Margaret Piper said Woomera was more prone to violence as its desert location north of Adelaide made conditions harsher and exacerbated tension.

Woomera is one of six detention centres set up in isolated areas to detain illegal immigrants while their claims for asylum are investigated. The process can take as long as five years.

Under the government's hardline policies aimed at deterring boat people, recent arrivals have instead been shipped off to the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to have their claims assessed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Maura Angle
"At least six of the buildings have been destroyed"
Acting Immigration Minister Daryl Williams
"It started as a peaceful protest"
See also:

28 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Australian police battle immigrants
09 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Another immigrant breakout in Australia
06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's offshore camps are 'hellish'
16 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
UN attacks Australia's asylum policy
10 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Papua accepts boat people
03 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nauru
31 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's asylum policy
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