UPDATED: A riot that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to the Nauru immigration detention centre ended hours before the arrival of the first boat of asylum seekers who will face settlement outside of Australia.

The first group of boat people who could be sent to Papua New Guinea under the Australian Government’s tough new asylum seeker policy was intercepted north of Christmas Island this morning.

A brief statement from Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said a boat with 81 passengers and two crew on board was stopped by HMAS Bathurst and transferred to Christmas Island for health checks.

On Friday Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new hardline policy on boat people, saying people who arrive by boat will have no chance of resettlement in Australia, and will instead by sent to PNG.

The plan, announced by the Prime Minister alongside his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill in Brisbane yesterday, is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and is aimed at crushing the business of people smugglers.

"From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat has no chance of being settled here as a refugee," Mr Rudd said.

A riot involving hundreds of asylum seekers at the Nauru immigration detention centre last night has been described as "the biggest, baddest ever" by a witness.

Up to 60 detainees were held at the island's police station on Friday night following the outbreak of violence yesterday afternoon.

There were reports up to 500 people may have escaped the facility but a spokeswoman from the Australian Immigration Department said the situation was under control this morning.

Four detainees were taken to hospital, a spokeswoman for the Department said.

Protestors gather in Perth's Forrest Place to share their views on the asylum seeker situation. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

The spokeswoman would not say how serious the injuries were or provide any other details on the injured.

"In terms of injuries there were several injuries to service provider staff and transferees during the disturbance," she said.

"People are receiving appropriate medical treatment."

The department was still trying to ascertain the extent of the damage to the centre, she said.

"All staff and transferees are accounted for."

Nauru Media director Sharain Hiram said the acting Nauruan president had made a televised address advising locals to stay away from the camp, according to reports.

When Mr Rudd made his announcement on Friday afternoon, about 150 of the 545 male detainees at the Nauru centre were continuing a peaceful protest that started earlier in the week.

They were aggrieved over long delays relating to their refugee claims.

By late afternoon, fires were lit, local riot police had arrived and a government plea to the public brought about 1000 local males to the scene armed with machetes and other makeshift weapons.

Under Mr Rudd's new plan, asylum seekers will be sent to Manus Island or elsewhere in PNG. If found to be refugees, they will be offered resettlement in PNG.

"If they are found not to be genuine refugees, they may be repatriated to their country of origin or be sent to a safe, third country other than Australia," Mr Rudd said.

The plan is a fortnight from being implemented because the existing Manus Island detention centre is not yet capable of handling a big influx of asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said women and children would not be transferred to PNG until the Manus Island centre became a permanent site. More than 15,600 people have reached Australia by boat this year and almost 1000 have died attempting the voyage in the past six years.

PNG is a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention and the Rudd Government is hoping to avoid the legal problems that cruelled Julia Gillard's attempt to send asylum seekers to Malaysia in 2011.

Mr Rudd said his decision may be "hard line" but was consistent with UN rules requiring the humane treatment of asylum seekers.

Warm-hearted Australians would be "devastatingly disappointed" with Labor's solution to boat people, Greens immigration spokeswoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

"Warm-hearted Australians and Labor voters will be devastatingly disappointed because this deal is about cruelty to refugees, not about caring for them," she said in Melbourne today.


The damage

This morning, freelance photographer Clint Deidenang described the scene at Nauru as a "war zone".

"Smokes (sic) can be seen from the torched storey buildings ... 95 per cent buildings burned out," Mr Deidenang said.

He said workers clad in orange shirts could be seen going though the wreckage, including new sleeping quarters worth tens of millions of dollars.

"All burned buildings are now unliveable. Total waste of moneys (sic)

"The entire buildings are burned down. Very destructive."

Plastic water tanks near the facility had "melted like butter" while the roofs of once-colourful buildings had "caved in".

The centre reportedly suffered $60 million in damages.

It's estimated that between half to all of the rioters were in local police custody.

Hundreds more had reportedly escaped from the facility but an Immigration spokeswoman later said all detainees were accounted for.

Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said the detainees had been protesting all week.

On Friday, they intended to break out and march to the airport before returning to the detention centre.

About the time the protest turned violent, two more boats of asylum seekers were intercepted.

They were the last to be processed under the old system.

A few hours after the riot ended, a third boat carrying 81 passengers and two crew was intercepted near Christmas Island.

Whatever their status, they will never be resettled in Australia.

Mr Burke said the rioters faced possible criminal prosecution under Nauru law and could be denied refugee status based on the character test.

"Be in no doubt that the sort of crimes that appear to have been committed are crimes which carry serious prison sentences," he said.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said everyone who was located at the centre would now have to be relocated to the other site on the island, which was being built for family accommodation.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he'd been "struck by the level of support both in the Pacific region and beyond" for the Rudd Government's new plan to resettle asylum-seeking boat arrivals.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Compare & Save

Follow Us

More from The West