A tough day has gone from bad to worse for Australian Immigration and Border Protection authorities following the death of a detainee and outbreak of a major disturbance at the notorious Christmas Island offshore detention facility just as a national strike by its staff swept across the nation’s airports.
An update issued by Department of Immigration on Monday afternoon confirmed an ongoing disturbance including the lighting of fires, authorities have denied the incident amounted to a riot and insisted they have control over the perimeter of the facility.
Initial reports running across New Zealand and Australian media outlets aired claims that detention contractor Serco may have lost control of the facility after its staff fled when former prison inmates due to be deported to New Zealand rioted and set fires in the facility after another detainee was found dead by Australian Federal Police.
“There is currently no large scale ‘riot’ involving the majority of the centre’s population, as claimed by some advocates and in social media reporting, but the centre remains tense and staff have been withdrawn from compounds for safety reasons,” a the statement from Immigration said.
“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.”
According to authorities the “protest action” started when a small group of Iranian detainees conducted a peaceful after the death of a male detainee on Sunday after he escaped and was found at the bottom of cliffs on the Island.
Immigration claims that although “peaceful” protests were permissible “other detainees took advantage of the situation to engage in property damage and general unrest.”
“There is believed to be damage to medical, educational and sporting facilities but a full assessment is yet to be conducted. There are no reports at this time of any injuries to detainees or staff,” the Immigration statement said.
The unfolding crisis largely overshadowed a national day of protected strike action across Australia’s airports by former Customs and Quarantine staff who are protesting the potential loss of conditions and up to $8000 in take home pay following agency mergers to create Australian Border Force.
Both the Community and Public Sector Union and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have been at pains to stress that staff covering national security, counter terrorism or intelligence functions are explicitly exempted from the strike which has been heavily publicised for around a fortnight.
However the timing of the strike coincided with the resumption of federal Parliament, although most politicians and their staff routinely fly into Canberra the night before the sitting day begins.
According to the CPSU’s Twitter feed, trainee Border Force staff have been sent in to make up for the walkout with unlimited overtime authorised to enable some to pull a 17-hour day.
While the CPSU is citing delays of up to 2 hours at Brisbane airport, flights from Asia have also been disrupted by a volcanic cloud that has caused flights to and from Bali to be cancelled.
The impact airport strike has been compounded by industrial strife on the nation’s wharfs after Border Force hit back at limited protected action by CPSU staff processing freight by exercising its right to dock a full day’s pay from participating officers.
On Monday afternoon the CPSU posted pictures of fresh fruit and friands it claims were put for out to comfort “strikebreakers”.
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