Immigration riot: is Australia's asylum seeker policy illegal?

Feb 18, 2014

Conditions in the Manus Island camp have been declared 'inhumane' by the UN

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A RIOT in an Australian immigration detention centre in Papua New Guinea has left one asylum seeker dead. Thirteen people were transferred to hospital after being injured in the violence, one with a gunshot wound.

The man who died had suffered injuries to his head, the BBC reports. Australian foreign minister Scott Morrison said the detainee died on his way to hospital but would not disclose the man's nationality nor how he sustained his injuries.

Papua New Guinean police opened fire after hundreds of male detainees pushed down a perimeter fence at the Manus Island camp late on Monday night, Morrison said. But refugee advocates say that the violence began when police and local residents stormed the facility, attacking the asylum seekers.

Australia maintains detention camps in neighbouring countries to temporarily house people arriving by boats, many of whom make the dangerous journey hoping to claim asylum.

Unrest at the camp has escalated in recent weeks as detainees sought to pressure the Australian government into closing its South Pacific detention centres, the ABC reports. Conditions in the camps have been criticised by UN agencies and rights groups, and their legality has been questioned.

Why do the camps exist?

Canberra maintains detention centres outside of its territory as part of a blanket ban on people arriving by boat and settling in Australia. The policy has been criticised by the UN as inhumane and illegal. Australia has detention centres at Manus Island and the small Pacific island of Nauru to ensure that refugees and illegal immigrants can be processed without setting foot on Australian shores.

Where are the boats coming from?

Many would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Sudan's Darfur region, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria pay people smugglers in Indonesia to help them reach the northern coast of Australia, often in unsafe boats. Arrivals rose sharply between 2012 and 2013, and dozens of people have died attempting the journey.

What does the government say?

The waters between Australia and south east Asia are patrolled by the country's navy and coast guards, and boats are often intercepted and "towed back" to Indonesia or elsewhere – a practice that the UN refugee agency says may breach international law. After its election in September 2013, the conservative Abbott government initiated 'Operation Sovereign Borders', putting the military in full control of asylum operations.

The policy has strained relations with the Indonesian government, but proved popular within Australia. A poll conducted by Essential Research and published on found that a quarter of the 1,000-plus voters polled think that the federal government's approach to the problem is "too soft" and another 35 per cent believe the operation is the "right approach". Only 22 per cent said that the coalition's policy was "too tough".

What has the international response been?

The violence in Papua New Guinea has brought renewed calls from critics to close the detention centre. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in November that the Manus Island facility failed to provide "safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention," Reuters reported.

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