CANBERRA -- Australian immigration authorities have described the unrest at the Christmas Island detention centre as a “major disturbance,” but deny reports of large scale rioting.
The Immigration Department continues to work with centre managers, Serco, to quell the unrest which was prompted by the death of an escaped Kurdish-Iranian detainee over the weekend.
Detainees have described guards “freaking out” and leaving their posts, while Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young described the centre as being in “meltdown".
The Immigration Department has confirmed that staff have been withdrawn from the centre’s compounds for safety reasons, while Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has advised the disturbance began just after 11pm on Sunday night.
It is understood one person has sought medical attention for a matter unrelated to the unrest.
“There is a deep sense of distress inside the facility. One particular person described it from inside as like a disaster film,” Hanson-Young told The Huffington Post Australia.
“It is all being run by the people who’ve been locked up there for far too long.”
One of the New Zealand detainees, Lester Hohua has told the ABC it all went “haywire” over the past 24 hours and the officers were forced to leave the centre.
“Damaged a few panels, ripped off the walls, because nobody wants to be locked down any more,” he said.
“All we want to do, right, is be returned back to our families.”
Another detained New Zealand national Ricky Downs claims the guards had "freaked out and left”.
"There's fires everywhere, holes in the wall and the canteen has been smashed to pieces," Downs told TVNZ.
"There's not security, there's no response team, there's not border control, no guards."
The Department has assessed the centre as “tense”, but it has rejected descriptions by refugees advocates of large scale ‘rioting’ involving the majority of the centre’s population.
Dutton described on Monday some of the detainees on Christmas Island as "very serious criminals," including at least one on a manslaughter charge and members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
A full assessment is yet to be conducted, but the Department states there has been damage to medical, educational and sporting facilities.
Serco Australia has declined to comment on the death and the disturbance.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, is concerned about the fate of around 70 New Zealand nationals inside the centre who are awaiting deportation for criminal acts in Australia.
“Officials are following up with Australian authorities, including checking on the welfare of New Zealanders detained there,” he said in a statement.
The Department of Immigration has blamed the unrest on detainees facing deportation, under recently introduced laws targeting other nationals with criminal convictions.
“A group of detainees, believed to be non-citizens whose visas have been cancelled under mandatory cancellation provisions, continue to agitate and cause damage to the facility,” the Department said.
“The protest action began when a small group of Iranian detainees took part in a peaceful protest following the escape from, and death outside the centre, of a detainee on Sunday.”
“While peaceful protest is permissible, other detainees took advantage of the situation to engage in property damage and general unrest.”
The body of the detainee, aged in his 30s, was found by Australian Federal Police officers in bushland yesterday outside the centre.
The cause of the death is unknown, but the Minister has advised there are no suspicious circumstances.
Refugee advocates said five men have now died over the past 15 weeks while seeking Australian asylum.
The Refugee Action Coalition said the man, who was a boat arrival, had been detained for five years.
It claimed he’d been found to be a refugee two and a half years ago, but had been involved in violence at the Curtin Detention Centre and had not been released.
The Immigration Minister has told parliament that any criminal offences will be referred to the police.
“If people have caused damage to Commonwealth property, they will be investigated and prosecuted in relation to those matters,” he said.
New Zealand Labour MP Kelvin Davis, who has taken up the cause of New Zealand nationals in the centre, and Hanson-Young are concerned about retaliation by authorities.
“I call on the government to act with restraint and not use force against these people,” Hanson-Young told HuffPost Australia.
Meantime, the Australian Federal Police is investigating the detainee's death.
"As this investigation is the subject of a report for the Coroner, no further comment will be made at this time,” it said in a statement.
Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles has asked for an assurance from the Government that the detainees are safe.