Australia: Indefinite detention harms asylum seekers’ mental health

News
February 23, 2012

Australia: Indefinite detention harms asylum seekers’ mental health

Australia’s policy of placing asylum seekers in indefinite detention is traumatizing innocent people and jeopardizing their mental health, Amnesty International said after visiting some of the country’s most remote detention centres.

Following a 13-day fact-finding mission this month to detention centres on Christmas Island off the southern coast and in three cities on the mainland, the organization has once again found the asylum policy to be flawed and in contravention of Australia’s human rights obligations.

“After speaking with many asylum seekers who have suffered damage to their mental health because of this system, it is clear to us that the Australian government has to change this policy, as a matter of law as well as simple morality,” said Dr Graham Thom, a refugee spokesman at Amnesty International.

“Across every facility we visited what was evident was the stress caused by prolonged detention and the uncertainty which continues to traumatize innocent people who are still waiting behind fences.”

Amnesty International found that some of the centres – including Northwest Point on Christmas Island and the new Wickham Point centre in the northern city of Darwin – unnecessarily look and feel like prisons. The high-security compounds of Christmas Island, which house hundreds of men who have committed no crime, are particularly grim environments.

In the centres on Christmas Island and the north-western city of Curtin, the harsh and isolated environments make it difficult to provide basic services and supplies like medical attention, communications and access to support networks.

Asylum seekers repeatedly told Amnesty International that they suffer from the negative mental health impact of long-term detention despite efforts made to improve the facilities’ physical environments.

“There was a striking contrast between men we met who had only been detained for a few months describing the trauma experienced in their home countries, compared with the men who had been held for up to three years telling us of the trauma caused by their detention,” said Graham Thom.

The use of sleeping pills is still widespread throughout all of the centres, with many people explaining how they rely on medication to pass the days away.

An Iranian man told Amnesty International: “When I came to this country I was strong and healthy, now I am ill. I am taking sleeping pills, I am weak.”

Amnesty International is calling on the Australian government to immediately close the country’s remote detention centres and limit detention to a maximum of 30 days, with community processing to occur once initial heath and security checks are complete.

The government should prioritize community processing for long-term detainees, families and unaccompanied children.