Police were responding to an ongoing incident on Wednesday at an immigration center in Darwin, capital of Australia's Northern Territory, where residents allegedly committed self-harm and blocked a section of the camp to protest looming detainee transfers.
As many as 50 detainees at the Wickham Point Facility reportedly broke down a fence separating the facility’s camp section from an interview area where detainees were still being held, according to the Guardian Australia. The group then sat on the ground to protest the scheduled transfer of at least two families to the detention center on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Police confirmed that three units, including at least one canine unit, had been sent to the facility to help immigration officials restore order, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The ABC obtained a video, reportedly taken by an asylum seeker, showing a distressed woman on the ground while asylum seekers watched from nearby.
Australia has been criticized by several international rights groups for its treatment of illegal immigrants. The country's draconian immigration policy calls for all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be detained and transferred to offshore camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing.
Ben Pynt, an immigration activist from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, told BBC that he had been contacted by dozens of detainees who were trying to raise awareness of the impending transfers and the self-harm.
At least 100 people have reportedly been involved in demonstrations since Tuesday, protesting the planned transfer of a group of 20 asylum seekers, including babies and a pregnant woman who allegedly attempted suicide on Tuesday, after she “decided she’d rather die than go to Nauru,” Pynt told the Guardian.
The Wickham Point facility has seen a spate of self-harm incidents or suicide attempts over the last two weeks, with at least one man being “close to death” before he was found, Pynt added. A group of over 15 Iranian detainees have begun hunger strikes since last December, to which a facility manager allegedly told them: “We don’t care if you die.”
An independent report from former integrity commissioner Philip Moss reportedly found credible evidence of rape, sexual coercion and intimidation of asylum seekers on the Nauru camp, after allegations from the nonprofit group Save the Children last year. Anonymous officials also told the Guardian Australia that the Australian government had received reports of these incidents dating back to November 2013.
However, Australia’s immigration department dismissed the nonprofit workers' claims and accused them of encouraging detainees to hurt themselves and fabricate stories of assault in order to gain sympathy, but the report found no evidence to back the government's claims. On Wednesday, the immigration department sought to downplay the latest incident, refuting reports of a “riot.”
"A disturbance occurred involving detainees that resulted in minor property damage," a tweet from the department read.