CANBERRA, Australia — Firefighters in Australia battled new blazes today set by detainees at a much-criticized detention center for illegal immigrants as an outbreak of unrest continued at the country's refugee camps.
At first, staff members at the Woomera camp in South Australia state tried to put out the fires, but they fled after detainees, armed with metal bars and stones, began an attack, officials said. The blazes destroyed or damaged 43 buildings before they were finally brought under control.
The arson attacks, which authorities blamed on detainees frustrated by the government's rejection of their asylum applications, followed a spate of fires over the weekend at the new Baxter detention center, also in South Australia state.
Firefighters were called early Monday to douse blazes in two unoccupied buildings at Western Australia state's Port Hedland center and Sunday to put out small fires at Woomera.
Woomera, where 121 illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, are being held, has been plagued by a spate of hunger strikes, riots and escapes this year as the government prepares to mothball it.
The total damage is estimated at more than $3.5 million, and extra guards have been put on duty to try to prevent further outbursts of violent protest.
The fires again threw a spotlight on Australia's hard-line stance against illegal immigrants and its long-standing practice of detaining all illegal arrivals -- including women and children -- at remote, guarded camps. Migrants arriving on boats are usually diverted to holding centers on Pacific islands. Asylum applications can take years to process.
These policies have been sharply criticized by international human rights groups and the United Nations. But the government's tough position has broad public support.
"There is a lot of unrest from people who are I guess protesting against judgments that they are not entitled to stay in this country. That is something that we are not going to allow to alter our policy," Prime Minister John Howard told Australian radio.
"I don't think there are many people in Australia, whatever their politics are, who believe that people who, having gone through a process of review and are deemed not to have what they asked for, that they are therefore justified in burning the place down."