Self-harm surge at Australian refugee centres

SYDNEY — Australia’s immigration system and its detainees are under considerable strain, documents showed Wednesday, with self-harm reports surging 12-fold as waiting times soar.

Compiled for a government committee examining Australia’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers arriving by boat, the official documents offered a rare and sobering insight into the troubled centres.

“Unfortunately, we have seen increased instances of unrest… as well as self-harm and sadly, on occasion, suicide,” immigration department chief Andrew Metcalfe told the committee.

There were 6,403 people in immigration detention as at June 30 this year, with the main facility on remote Christmas Island housing 759 — almost double its operational capacity.

The detainees were predominantly young men, more than half of whom came from Afghanistan or Iran, although the report showed the number of children rising to 964 in the past year.

The riot-hit Christmas Island centre has been overflowing since mid-2009, with its surging population accompanied by a spike in incident reports to 1,176 in the three months to June 30, from 83 a year earlier.

There were 104 disturbances in the period, nine classed as “major” and 35 people on protracted hunger strikes, with 83 self-harm attempts — 27 of them serious.

Sydney’s Villawood centre, also rocked by riots, suicides and protests, was in a similar state, with 451 incident reports in the three months to June 30 from 189 a year earlier, dominated by self-harm, unrest and aggression.

Across the entire detention network self-harm threats and acts surged from 90 in 2009-10 to 1,132 in 2010-11, 386 of which were actual attempts.

In the past year there had been six deaths, 1,320 hunger strikes, 2,473 hospitalisations and 93 psychiatric admissions, according to the 600-page report.

Metcalfe said the department was “acutely aware” that the system was under pressure, and took the unprecedented step of calling for the government to look at alternatives to mandatory detention.

“We need to discuss asylum needs and focus on trends and the relative success rates for various cohorts,” he told the committee.

“Can we manage different cohorts, with different success rates or security and risk features, in different ways?”

The immigration chief also questioned whether detention served as a deterrent or facilitated case resolution and how long, if at all, processing required people to be locked up.

The average detention has extended from 103 days in the first half of 2009 to 316 days in the six months to June 30 this year.

It is longest — an average 413 days — for asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.

Though they arrive in relatively low numbers by global standards, refugees are a thorny political issue in Australia, and a record influx last year of almost 7,000 boatpeople has stretched facilities.

Canberra has had to open new centres and expand others and move women and children into the community to ease the burden, while seeking deals to ship new arrivals to Malaysia and Papua New Guinea as a deterrent measure.


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