Melbourne - Concern is growing for the mental health of thousands of people locked up indefinitely in this country’s immigration detention system.
In July, the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, a statutory body handling complaints about investigations into government departments and agencies, outlined an inquiry into suicides and self- harm among immigration detainees.
"I was alarmed that in the first week of June when I visited Christmas Island (detention centres), more than 30 incidents of self-harm by detainees held there were reported," said ombudsman Allan Asher.
The investigation was announced after an increase in such incidents was reported to International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the contracted health services provider, and following inspections by ombudsman staff at several detention facilities earlier this year.
According to figures released to the ombudsman’s office by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), there were more than 1,100 incidents of either threatened or actual self-harm up to Jun. 30.
A further 54 incidents were reported in the first week of July.
Data from DIAC and IHMS, released at a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention network on Aug.16, threw further light on the situation inside the country’s 19 centres.
In the first six months of 2011, 213 detainees required medical attention after self-harm. More than 1,500 people were hospitalised, including 72 admitted for psychiatric reasons, and 723 treated for ‘voluntary starvation.’ Among the hunger strikers were 17 children.
The conditions inside the four detention centres on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, where all those arriving by boat are taken to for initial processing appear to be severe.
From July 2010 to June, 620 self-harm incidents occurred on the island.
Current inquiries - including an independent review of mental health services available to those in detention - follow a host of reports emphasising the health risks for the detainees.
The consensus is that long-term, indefinite detention results in considerable mental distress.
Internal documents from Serco, the international service company contracted by the government to operate Australia’s immigration detention system, leaked to news outlets, reveal evidence of extreme stress.
Dating from May and June, the documents pertain to the company’s operations on Christmas Island and repeatedly instruct: "Hoffmans to be worn by all officers at all times." Hoffmans are knives used by detention centre staff to help release detainees who attempt to hang themselves.
In one staff briefing sheet, dated May 20, Serco officers are warned to be alert to detainees engaging in "abnormal behaviour."
"Clients are creating a self-harm culture, using self-harm as their bargaining tool," alleges the brief.
But such assessments of the motivating factors behind detainee self-harm are disputed.
"Self-harm is a stress reduction technique," says Victoria Martin-Iverson, spokeswoman of the Refugee Rights Action Network, an advocacy organisation based in Western Australia state.
"It’s not necessarily something that is done to even get a reaction from the guards; it’s often something people do because when they’re so stressed and there’s no outlet for that, they turn it in on themselves," she added.
There is also concern at a bilateral agreement signed with Malaysia, in July, to transfer up to 800 "irregular maritime arrivals" - government-speak for people who arrive by boat in Australia to claim asylum - to Malaysia in exchange for resettling 4,000 refugees here over the next four years.
While the deal’s implementation remains stuck in the courts following legal steps taken by asylum seekers and their representatives, it remains a key aspect of the governing Australian Labour Party’s approach to "combat people smuggling."
This approach, considered harsh by its critics, is to be complemented by the contentious reopening of an Australian immigration processing centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under an agreement signed on Aug.19.
The Australia-Malaysia "refugee swap" deal has been pilloried by refugees and human rights advocates who accuse the Australian government of backing out of obligations to ensure the well-being of people who seek refuge here.
Concerns are being raised over Malaysian authorities’ treatment of an estimated 90,000 refugees presently in that country.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention, which sets out to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers and the responsibilities of countries in which people hope to find protection.
"There is a risk that in sending asylum seekers to Malaysia, Australia could breach its non-refoulement obligations under other international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention Against Torture," said Catherine Branson, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, a statutory body.
"We are also concerned that transferring anyone who has a family member already in Australia could breach their right to family unity," Branson added.