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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 11:01 GMT
Howard defiant over asylum fires
This aerial photo dated 31 December shows some of the fire damage at Woomera, South Australia
The detainees at Woomera have now been moved
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said a series of fires at the country's detention centres will not force the government to change its immigration policies.

I don't accept there is a crisis

John Howard
The fires have caused millions of dollars' worth of damage at the camps in recent days.

In the latest case of arson, asylum seekers armed with pipes overran guards and set fire to a dining hall on Australia's remote Christmas Island on Tuesday.

It came less than 24 hours after a similar protest at Woomera, a remote facility in the South Australian desert.

Refugee advocates say detainees there, and at two other detention centres, have deliberately started the fires in sheer desperation.

Howard stands firm

Mr Howard has conceded the country's network of detention centres were facing serious unrest, but he denied the situation was out of control.

"I don't accept there is a crisis," he told ABC radio.

"This is something that we're not going to allow to alter our policies," he said.

The fire at the Christmas Island is said to be still burning as a standoff between staff and detainees is preventing fire fighting.

Baxter detention camp
Fires caused serious damage at Baxter at the weekend

It comes after more than 40 buildings were burnt to the ground at Woomera, causing an estimated A$4.3m ($1.9m) of damage.

As officers at Woomera tried to extinguish the blazes, they were pelted with stones and threatened with metal bars, according to the immigration department.

Immigration officials said the unrest amounted to a "carefully orchestrated plan to sabotage the facility".

All 121 asylum seekers housed there have been moved to other compounds and could soon be relocated to other camps.

The fires at Woomera follow similar disturbances at the Baxter Immigration Centre near Port Augusta in South Australia and at the Port Headland facility in Western Australia.


The mandatory detention of asylum seekers, including children, has been widely criticised.

The United Nations has described it as inhumane.

The authorities have said it is necessary on health and security grounds.

Refugee advocates believe the recent disturbances were not surprising, given the frustration felt by detainees.

Paul Boylan, from the Woomera Lawyer's Group, said the protests were probably triggered by feelings of desperation.

He said these were acts of people who had been unfairly treated by immigration authorities and whose futures were bleak.

Many of the detainees thought to have been involved in these violent protests are understood to have had their applications to stay in Australia rejected and are now facing deportation.

Australian federal police are still investigating the weekend fires at the Baxter and Port Headland facilities and are expected at Woomera later on Tuesday.

  The BBC's Phil Mercer, Sydney
"The United Nations has described it as inhumane"

Detention camps

Boat people



See also:

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12 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
03 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
17 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Sep 02 | Correspondent
30 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
07 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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