SYDNEY’S Villawood Detention Centre last night erupted into violence with rioting detainees setting fire to the facility and forcing guards to retreat.
More than 30 firefighters were battling to control blazes in up to three of the centre’s buildings after detainees gathered furniture which they lit and then hurled.
The rioting followed a day-long protest by up to 11 detainees, some of whom refused to come down from the roof from where they threw tiles.
Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said guards “withdrew” from the compound that was on fire. “At least three buildings in stage three are on fire and one major fire has been set in the grounds of the stage three compound,” he said.
Another refugee advocate, Jamal Daoud, told The Australian that detainees inside one of the centre’s compounds had attacked guards by throwing objects at them before lighting the fire.
“The detainees are rioting inside the Villawood detention centre, the detainees attacked SERCO security with fire extinguishers and threw objects on them,” he said.
“The guards then ran away.”
A spokesman for the NSW Fire Brigade said it was not safe for the officers to enter the centre, forcing them to attempt to extinguish the flames from a cherry picker.
Mr Daoud, who was outside the centre last night, said the flames were very high.
He said detainees in the centre had told him that the fire began in the computer room of a compound known as stage three, which houses between 150 and 200 asylum-seekers.
Mr Daoud said the detainees who started the fire were frustrated by the lack of care the Department of Immigration and Citizenship showed to two men who were protesting on the roof of the centre for much of yesterday. In the evening, the rooftop protest swelled to up to 15 detainees and Mr Daoud said that by around 11.30pm the situation had escalated dramatically.
“There is total chaos inside the detention, with detainees from the rooftop throwing roof tiles on the ground,” he said.
Mr Daoud said around midnight the rioting detainees destroyed a fence between two separate compounds of the centre and started another fire. He said this fire, in an area known as stage two, had destroyed Villawood’s canteen and kitchen. “They (the detainees) told me the kitchen exploded because of the gas,” he said. “They are angry detainees . . . it is a riot.”
Mr Daoud, who is also spokesman for the Social Justice Network, said he had warned the department before the fires broke out that the rooftop protest had to be quelled, otherwise the situation would escalate.
“I warned them about this from yesterday morning. The department needed to send someone to negotiate, they ignored them and the people on the rooftop said they would not go down.”
Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said three areas of the compound on fire had been destroyed, including a billiards room and computer room. He said power had been cut off to the compound on fire and many detainees were upset and worried. “People in the compound are very distressed because they can’t get out,” he said.
Australia’s detention centres have recently been plagued by violent riots, suicides and self-harm attempts.
Last month, a violent riot erupted at Christmas Island’s high security detention centre following a mass breakout. In the past eight months, six people have died in detention.
Conditions at Villawood have been the focus of a wide-ranging investigation into Australian detention centres by the government’s workplace safety regulator, Comcare. Last week, the commonwealth watchdog issued the Immigration Department with a lengthy improvement notice about dangers for workers at Villawood as part of a crackdown on the seven immigration detention centres.
A senior Comcare investigator found that alleged ringleaders of the Christmas Island riot transferred to Villawood’s high-security area were placed under the control of a worker who had not been trained for the job.
Last night’s rioting came as the family of a Fijian man who leapt to his death from a rooftop at the detention centre in September pleaded with the state coroner to hold immigration authorities, Serco and the commonwealth to account for “systemic failures” within the detention network.
Josefa Rauluni, 36, threw himself off the roof of stage two of the Villawood centre after being denied a permanent visa and was scheduled to be sent back to his native Fiji. The father of another, active in the Fijian movement for democracy, had told the Immigration Department of his son’s intention to commit suicide, saying in a letter delivered just days before his death that if his deportation was to go ahead they should “send my dead body”. His death is the subject of a coronial inquiry to begin in June. However, his family wants more than just the circumstances of his death scrutinised.