Australia to scale down riot-hit immigration camp

More than 7,000 boatpeople have arrived in Australia since 2010.

Updated: Mar 21, 2011, 13:41 PM IST

Sydney: Australia said on Monday it would reduce the number of asylum seekers at an overcrowded detention centre on Christmas Island but would not abandon the camp which has endured days of riots and escapes.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government wanted fewer inmates at the purpose-built facility, which sits on a small Indian Ocean outcrop some 2,650 kilometres (1,650 miles) northwest of Perth, after the violence.

"As I`ve said previously, we do need to reduce the numbers on Christmas Island; I`ve been working towards that for some time," Bowen told ABC television.

"But these recent events have necessitated the expedition of that."

Riots broke out at the remote centre last week, with about 250 inmates setting fire to accommodation tents and hurling makeshift explosives at police, prompting them to respond with tear gas and "bean bag" bullets.

Scores of inmates also escaped the complex during the week, with some hiding in dense jungle for days and reportedly surviving on crabs, but Bowen said it appeared that they had now all returned to the centre.

Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for boatpeople and most are taken to Christmas Island for processing, leaving facilities at the centre stretched and forcing the building of more temporary accommodation there.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 2,391 detainees on the tiny island.

Bowen said the government would not revise its policy of processing visa applications offshore, despite sending the latest boatload of arrivals to the mainland given the tense situation on Christmas Island.

"It`s appropriate," Bowen said, adding that as the situation improved on the island the government would revert to processing people there.

But he said the government still wanted to establish a regional processing centre, most likely in East Timor, to deal with the asylum seekers attempting to make their way to Australia, often by rickety boats from Indonesia.

More than 7,000 boatpeople -- mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka -- have arrived in Australia since 2010, overcrowding detention centres and raising a thorny issue for politicians on how to deal with refugees.

Refugee advocates say frustration at the length of time detainees spend on the island waiting for their claims to be assessed had contributed to last week`s violence.

But Bowen said whatever their frustrations, violence was unacceptable.

Bureau Report