November 9, 2015 / 4:41 AM / 4 years ago

Australia's Christmas Island 'in meltdown' says opposition

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian opposition politicians on Monday demanded that the government disclose the extent of destruction caused by ongoing riots at a controversial immigration detention centre following the death of an asylum seeker.

Fences at the facility on the remote Australian outpost of Christmas Island were torn down and fires were lit, forcing guards to abandon the facility and allowing access to vulnerable inmates by other detainees, according to reports.

Christmas Island segregates detainees seeking political asylum, many of whom have fled from war-torn regions in the Middle East and Asia, from foreigners facing deportation for a variety of crimes.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told parliament that the unrest began around 11pm local time Sunday following the death of an inmate who had escaped on Saturday.

The body of the man, identified by refugee advocates as an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker, was discovered by search and rescue teams on Sunday at the bottom of cliffs away from the centre, the Immigration Department said.

“If people have caused damage to Commonwealth property, they will be investigated and prosecuted in relation to those matters,” Dutton told parliament.

But opposition Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who said that the centre was “in meltdown”, demanded that the government disclose the extent of the unrest and exercise restraint in responding to it.

“I have spoken with people who are locked up in the centre and they say that there is widespread unrest and fires across the facility,” she said in a statement.

Asylum seekers are a hot political issue in Australia. Successive governments have vowed to stop them reaching the mainland, sending those intercepted on unsafe boats to camps on Christmas Island, and more recently Manus island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific.

Many detainees on Christmas Island are from neighbouring New Zealand and are awaiting appeals after having been convicted of crimes. Some have lived in Australia for decades and the number of such deportations is a sore spot in the relationship.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key urged his citizens not to take part in any rioting, as it may further damage their legal standing.

“My concerns would be that, like a riot at any corrections facility, there can and may well be consequences as a result of that,” Key told reporters.

Additional reporting by Swati Pandey and Charlotte Greenfield in Wellington; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Hugh Lawson

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