23 Jul 2013

Asylum seekers in Nauru in police custody

4:13 pm on 23 July 2013

More than 150 asylum seekers in Nauru are in police custody following a riot at the Australian-run detention centre that's caused 55 million US dollars in damage.

The incident follows the Australian government's announcement of a new immigration policy not to allow would-be refugees who arrive in Australia by boat to settle there.

Beverley Tse has more:

The Director of Nauru Media, Sharain Hiram, says fire ripped through the detention centre and destroyed the majority of the camp's buildings which have been housing about 540 men from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Palestine.

"SHARAIN HIRAM: All the houses were burnt down, especially the medical centre, the kitchen, everything. Nothing's left, just the half or quarter of the kitchen left there, the dining area. That's all I know."

The director of the Government Information Office, Joanna Olsson, says 152 asylum seekers have been arrested and are due to appear in court on Wednesday. She says the police commissioner, Richard Britten, was suspended after Friday night's events but the reasons behind the decision are uncertain.

JOANNA OLSSON: It might be related to the riot. I don't know. It's just the way different thought, different minds are thinking of how to handle the riot or not. But it's for that exact reason I can't be definite on it.

Joanna Olsson says a local superintendent, Kalinda Blake, has stepped in as Director of Police. A retired immigration department official and human rights activist from Australia, Frederica Steen, says the riot is a protest at the asylum seekers' indefinite detention.

FREDERICA STEEN: I'd call it a frustration outbreak from people whose human rights are not being observed in the full. And my heart goes out to the Nauruan people who have been entrapped by their big neighbour Australia, to be the host to asylum seekers who are fundamentally Australia's prime responsibility.

An Australian-based migration agent and human rights advocate, Marion Le says the riot was predictable.

MARION LE: When you put people in a situation like Nauru, where they're cut off from any outside contact and information, and you leave them there, you make promises to them that they're going to have their claims for refugee status assessed, then you decide under a bit of pressure that you'll assess some of them, then I think it's inevitable that this sort of thing will happen.

The Nauru government has begun a clean-up operation at the detention centre. Joanna Olsson says the asylum seekers are now being housed in tents and are expected to be relocated to a second detention camp by the end of the week.