Self-harm on the rise at detention centres


In April, refugee rights activists from Perth and other parts of Australia attempted to visit asylum seekers held in the Curtin detention centre. Leading the protest action were the asylum seekers themselves, who went on hunger strike. Why is there so much underlying tension within the system of mandatory detention?

In many ways, the system has become more punitive under the ALP government than what it was under Howard. What we saw and experienced at Curtin was typical of all immigration detention centres. They are designed to isolate asylum seekers from the general population, to break their spirits and contain their anger. They produce nothing but despair and isolation and are one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history. The majority of people who have been through the system of mandatory detention for any length of time suffer from immense psychological damage and find it difficult to rebuild their lives. It is a system that breaks people, and it’s getting worse.


A SERCO officer on Christmas Island presented Direct Action a used tear gas canister, confirming that tear gas had been used on the island during the unrest that occurred in April. Our source told DA that there were 241 instances of self-harm during that month at Christmas Island alone. Our source had cut down three people who had attempted to hang themselves in one week and witnessed dozens of slashings.

They also recounted an instance in which a teenager has been housed with adults and is being raped. When the officer complained to SERCO management, the answer was: “We know, don’t trouble us with this, he is enjoying it”. Their only response has been to give the young man condoms. He has stopped talking and is unable to do anything except sleep. He is suicidal.

Asylum seekers who have attempted suicide and are showing signs of aggravation are immediately handcuffed and placed into isolation for 24 hours. They are not given access to psychologists, and it is very rare that they are seen by a psychiatrist. They are given very little medical care at all.

Mandatory detention is the highest level of intimidation and repression of the most vulnerable people in our society that the Australian government can get away with. There have been six deaths in immigration detention centres in the last nine months, five of which were suicides.

Arbitrary bureaucracy

The process determining who is a refugee is almost completely arbitrary, with no legal assistance. Asylum seekers can be deported immediately if the Australian Federal Police (AFP) deem their answers at their first interview unsatisfactory. Most refugees have lived through highly traumatic experiences and often suffer from either complete memory loss or fragmented memory, making it difficult to provide consistent information when questioned about their journey, particularly when questioned specifically about the events causing their trauma. These inconsistencies can be used as evidence of a false story to justify rejection.

They may also be arrested for people smuggling if the AFP or the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) concludes that they are part of the crew of the boat. There is one man held in a Perth prison convicted of people smuggling for having helped prepare a meal on the boat he was travelling on. He had no connection with so-called people smugglers, who are in any case lowly paid Indonesian fishermen. He will most likely be deported when he has finished his sentence. The Refugee Rights Action Network knows of one case where an Indonesian minor has been imprisoned with adults. Disturbingly, there could be others whom refugee rights advocates are not aware of. They only became aware of the case when they saw the young man outside a courtroom in Perth and questioned him.

After their first interview with the AFP, asylum seekers are quarantined like animals for 40 days and housed in tents for “health checks”. It could then be months before an asylum seeker is interviewed and their case for a protection visa is assigned to a DIAC officer. An asylum seeker in Villawood has waited for 10 months before being interviewed. Security checks by ASIO are completely secretive. No one ever knows the reason if their application for asylum is rejected on security grounds; they are simply deported. If they pass the security check, they must then apply to the minister of immigration, Chris Bowen, for a protection visa. All visas are issued at the minister’s discretion.

Bowen has announced that from May 14 boat arrivals will not be processed in Australia, but will be sent to “other countries” in our region. This could mean using the same detention centres used by John Howard under the “Pacific solution”, such as Manus Island in PNG.

Malaysian ‘solution’

The government now plans to send 800 refugees to Malaysia for processing over four years, and to resettle 4000 Burmese refugees already processed by the UNHCR in Malaysia. The cost is estimated to amount to $292 million. This is on top of the $1 billion contract awarded to SERCO to manage the detention centres in Australia. This proposal is worse then anything that happened under the Howard government; essentially it is Howard’s “Pacific solution” with sharper teeth. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said the deal would result in boat people “going to the back of the queue”. What it means is that people who have fled torture and persecution will now face a future of uncertainty and possibly further human rights abuses.

The Howard government’s “Pacific solution”, which removed parts of Australian territory from the migration zone, did nothing except to divert attention from Howard’s lagging popularity. Only 46 refugees were taken in for resettlement by countries other than Australia and New Zealand. It’s not surprising that Labor has dredged up a key part of Howard’s fortress Australia, because it supported the policy from the beginning.

Neither Malaysia nor Papua New Guinea are signatories to the Refugee Convention. Malaysia is one of the worst places to which the government could send refugees. Currently, it is home to around 93,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, of whom 92% are from Burma. There are another 4000 Sri Lankans, 1000 Somalis, 700 Iraqis and 500 Afghans. With no right to work, people often live in squalid conditions, subject to the whims of police who often assault, torture and terrorise. Asylum seekers have been sold into slavery by police. Malaysia’s own migration working group and top legal groups have condemned the swap.

According to Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, caning in Malaysia has hit epidemic proportions. In Malaysian prisons, specially trained caning officers tear into victims’ bodies with a metre-long rattan cane swung with both hands at high speed. Judicial caning, originally imposed under British colonial rule in the 19th century, is supported by the Malaysian government. State-employed doctors play an integral role, determining if a person is fit to be caned and reviving them for further abuse when they are unconscious. This treatment is also applied to children.

Asylum seekers detained in camps in Malaysia have died from diseases such as leptospirosis, which is spread via rat urine. The detention centres are extremely cramped and lacking in sanitation, with hundreds of people held in areas the size of a tennis court.

The UNHCR, said “safeguards” are needed in the agreement between Malaysia and Australia to ensure any detention of asylum seekers is for a limited initial period. Such “safeguards” would only legitimise the Australian government’s abrogation of its responsibilities to protect people seeking asylum. No asylum seeker could feel safe when the certainty of their status as a refugee is withheld from them and they are detained in places that are worse than prisons.

Australian News & Analysis