Australian police question asylum riot suspects

Australia`s minister warns violence by asylum seekers would not be tolerated.

Updated: Apr 22, 2011, 16:36 PM IST

Sydney: Australian police were questioning 22 people removed from a detention centre that was set ablaze, as the government came under renewed pressure to overhaul its asylum seeker policy.

Riots erupted at the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney on Wednesday night, involving an estimated 100 people as nine buildings were torched and firefighters were pelted with tiles and other objects.

A number of detainees remained on a roof on Friday but the night passed peacefully, an immigration department spokeswoman said.

"We can report that the centre has been calm throughout the night," she said, adding that 22 people were taken from the facility in the early hours of the morning to Sydney`s Silverwater jail.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has warned that violence by asylum seekers would not be tolerated and said criminal charges might follow, with the bill for the damage expected to run into millions of dollars.

Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers while their claims are processed, and generally holds them on remote Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres (1,625 miles) from the mainland in the Indian Ocean.

But an increased number of people arriving by boat -- 6,500 last year, many from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka -- has seen more use of mainland centres, including Villawood, which houses about 400 people.

The latest unrest, which followed days of riots at Christmas Island last month, has again sparked calls for the government to overhaul its detention system.

Conservative opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the protesters should be sent to the "back of the queue", referring to their visa applications.

"This is a government that has crisis after crisis," he said.

The Labor government leads a fragile ruling coalition with independent MPs and the Greens, who also called for changes to the handling of asylum seekers in criticism more likely to worry Canberra.

The government currently outsources the running of its detention centres to a private British-based company, Serco, and Greens immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said it should return to being publicly run.

"It is about time the government reviewed the contract and had an urgent audit about the types of operations that are going on," she told ABC television.

"They should realise that the promise that they broke in 2007 to bring back into public hands the running of detention centres -- when they broke that promise, they made a mistake."

Some of the asylum seekers in Villawood have been locked up for almost two years, with refugee activists blaming the recent disturbances on the psychological effects that mandatory and prolonged detention can have.

The Greens want time limits on detention, but Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan, filling in for Julia Gillard who is in Japan, said the government would not support this.

He also said there were no plans to take back control of immigration centres, although this could be reviewed depending on the findings of an inquiry into the riots.

"We will see the results of the inquiry and then we`ll act," Swan told reporters.

In an attempt to stem the steady flow of people making their way to Australia, often by rickety boats from Indonesia, Canberra wants to set up a regional processing centre in East Timor -- but the move is opposed by Dili.

Bureau Report