Detention Camp Uprising Highlights Australia's Appalling Treatment of Refugees

Christmas Island detention center in Australia was the site of unrest over the weekend following the mysterious death of a refugee being detained at the camp. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Detention Camp Uprising Highlights Australia's Appalling Treatment of Refugees

"We have grave concerns about what’s happening on Christmas Island. This is a stain on our national character."

Weekend unrest at Australia's Christmas Island detention center, triggered by the death of an asylum-seeker who reportedly tried to escape, has focused renewed attention on the human rights abuses of detained refugees.

Fazel Chegeni, an Iranian Kurdish man in his early 30s, was found dead on Sunday on a cliff bottom after he reportedly attempted to escape from the facility, where refugees are detained roughly 1,242 miles northwest of Perth in the Indian Ocean.

Fazel Chegeni. (Photo: File)

The cause and circumstances of his death are currently unknown. But voices from inside the center and immigration advocates on the ground say Chegeni's escape should spotlight the dire need for reform of Australian detention camps, which are rife with allegations of human rights abuses.

"Like so many others, Fazel was suffering the effects of long-term, arbitrary detention," said the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney (RAC).

The unrest reportedly started after center officials announced that Chegeni had been found "in the jungle" and had been dead for "some time." In the ensuing protests, detainees knocked down walls and fences and burned the center's canteen as guards abandoned their posts.

Gordon Thompson, president of the local municipal government, toldNews Limited that Chegeni had been "driven to death by his detention."

Chegeni arrived in Australia in 2010 and had been held at various detention centers since that time, although he was briefly released on a good behavior bond in Melbourne before being re-detained over a fight that had taken place months earlier at Curtin Immigration Detention in Kimberley. He was granted refugee status in 2013, but remained in custody until his death. He had been at Christmas Island for about 10 weeks before the escape attempt.

Refugee rights activist Dana Affleck, who knew Chegeni, said he had previously attempted suicide and was battling depression while being held at the various centers.

Whatever led to his death, Affleck said, Chegeni "should not have been on Christmas Island in the first place."

"Our attitude towards people who seek safety in Australia has dehumanized people like Fazel to the extent that their deaths are less tragic, their pain less painful and their lives less important," Affleck wrote in a piece for Mama Mia, an Australia-based independent women's news website. "That is what killed Fazel."

RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul added, "This is another needless detention death. This time of a refugee who should never have been in detention. His mental health problems were well known. Detention could only exacerbate those problems. The delay in processing and releasing him is inexcusable. He is a victim of the punitive regime detention regime that cares nothing for the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees."

A member of RISE, a Melbourne-based immigrant rights group, told Al Jazeera that others inside the center had heard Chegeni screaming for help and later saw him in a body bag.

"These cases cannot be taken to court and the refugee him or herself sometimes does not know what they are doing there," the RISE member said. "They could claim they are investigating the asylum seeker, but in the end it is punishment."

Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens senator for South Australia, added that conditions at the nation's detention camps are appalling, with "profoundly subpar" hygiene and safety standards.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said during a press conference Monday, "We have grave concerns about what's happening on Christmas Island. This is a stain on our national character."

"We've got a policy now that is morally unsustainable, that is financially unsustainable," Di Natale said. "We are pushing people to breaking point ... This is a symptom of a government policy that is now in crisis."

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