The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre is one of numerous facilities Australia uses to detain asylum seekers while their refugee claims are processed.

Story highlights

Riots have broken out at the Christmas Island detention center

The violence followed news of the death of an escaped asylum seeker

Australian government says it is working to "assess and resolve the situation"

CNN  — 

Riots have broken out among detainees in an Australian immigration detention center on Christmas Island following the death of an Iranian refugee who escaped from the facility.

A statement by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection confirmed the “major disturbance,” although they denied that there was a “large scale ‘riot’,” and said it is working with its service providers “to assess and resolve the situation.”

Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) in Australia who has been in contact with refugees at the facility, said the rioting started Sunday night after detainees were informed that the escaped refugee – who he named as Fazel Chegeni – had been found dead “in the jungle.”

Fazel Chegeni, an Iranian refugee in his early 30s was found dead at the bottom of a cliff on Christmas Island, Australian officials said.

He said although there was no information or evidence to suggest that anyone had been involved in the death, the detainees immediately became suspicious of the involvement of guards from the center’s management company, Serco.

“The guards abandoned the detention center at 11 p.m. last night and there are presently no guards manning the center at all,” he added. “The refugees are now expecting the inevitable, which is either the arrival of the Australian Federal Police or the armed Serco Emergency Response Team.”

Significant damage has been reported at the camp, including a number of small fires and smashed walls and fences, although Rintoul said there had been no major damage to the accommodation blocks. Australia’s Immigration Department said that the guards had been withdrawn from the compound for “safety reasons” but that the camp’s perimeter had not been breached.

A photo of the Christmas Island Detention Centre, taken in 2013

Investigation underway

Fazel Chegeni was an Iranian Kurdish refugee aged in his early thirties who arrived in Australia in 2010 seeking asylum, according to the RAC.

Australian officials declined to confirm his name as they say the investigation is ongoing. However, they previously released a statement saying the body of an escapee had been found at the bottom of cliffs on the island by an Australian Federal Police search and rescue team who were looking for him.

The Department said the cause of death was unknown and is now the subject of a coronial inquiry. Rintoul said that his organization had also been instructed by Chegeni’s family to seek an independent autopsy.

Described by Rintoul as a “gentle, tortured soul,” Chegeni had reportedly been tortured in Iran and had a well-known history of mental illness, including three previous suicide attempts on Australian soil.

Although Chegeni’s refugee status had been confirmed by the Australian government two and a half years ago, he remained in detention pending successful application to the country’s immigration minister for a protection visa to allow him to live in the community.

“Fazel’s tortured history and his repeated suicide attempts speak to the fact that he should not have been on Christmas Island and subjected to the treatment he has received,” said Rintoul.

Australian border protection

Australia has a strict border protection policy and sends all asylum seekers arriving on its shores by boat to detention centers for processing.

The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Center lies on a remote Australian territory 2,650 kilometers (1,650 miles) north-west of Perth and housed 958 asylum seekers at the end of August 2015, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).

Other Australian “offshore processing facilities” include Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific. A total of 4,352 people, including 602 children, were held in detention at the end of August 2015, according to the ASRC.

The policy has been endorsed by successive Australian governments on the basis that the journeys asylum seekers make by boat are dangerous and controlled by criminal gangs. However, Australia has come under repeated criticism for its harsh policies from numerous local and international human rights organizations.

A report by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture released in March 2015 said that Australia was systematically violating the International Convention Against Torture and violating the rights of asylum seekers – including children – by “failing to provide adequate detention conditions.”