Amnesty International has warned that detention conditions on Christmas Island are deteriorating rapidly and asylum seekers there, as well as in other detention centres around the country, are at grave risk of self-harm and mental illness.

An Amnesty International delegation has just returned from an inspection tour of Christmas Island, the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, and detention facilities in Darwin.

“Morale within Australia’s detention facilities is quickly getting worse, leading to rising incidences of self-harm and attempted suicide,” said Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

“The mood on Christmas Island is particularly despondent. While meeting with asylum seekers there last week, I met grown men who were reduced to tears within minutes and who showed me scars from where they had been harming themselves. These are blatant symptoms of a system that is failing the people it is supposed to protect.”

With some 5,000 asylum seekers now being held in unacceptable conditions in centres across Australia, Amnesty International is calling on the government to urgently rethink the policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing.

Conditions on Christmas Island are especially worrying. More than 350 people are being detained in tent-style accommodation and additional facilities are hastily being erected to cope with new arrivals. Some asylum seekers have been detained on the remote island for over 16 months.

Of particular concern to Amnesty International is the length of time it is taking the Department of Immigration to process claims, the detention of large numbers of children, and the lack of adequate medical, mental health and counselling services available to the growing populations in such remote detention centres.

“The negative effects of long periods of detention, especially in remote locations, are well known,” said Graham Thom. “Detention is particularly harmful to children and to survivors of torture and trauma. It is unacceptable that the government has let the situation deteriorate to the point where we are again seeing asylum seekers self-harming.”

The Australian Government has a legal responsibility not to arbitrarily detain asylum seekers, or to subject them to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Amnesty International does not believe current detention conditions are in keeping with this responsibility.

Amnesty International has also questioned the decision to reopen the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in remote Western Australia. Around 750 Afghan men, the majority of whom were subject to the recently-lifted six month processing suspension, are being detained there. Steps are currently being taken to increase the centre’s capacity to 1,200.

“The decision to reopen Curtin defies logic,” said Graham Thom. “The centre is isolated and summer temperatures there reach well over 40 degrees. The men detained there, many of whom are survivors of torture and trauma, are facing over a year in these extreme detention conditions while their claims are assessed. This is absolutely inappropriate.”

More than 700 asylum seeker children, including a significant number of unaccompanied minors, are currently being detained in what the government calls ‘alternative places of detention,’ or APODs, which are monitored by security staff 24 hours per day.

“The number of children in being held in these places is rapidly approaching the highest levels seen during the Howard era. And to claim, as the government does, that children are not being held in detention centres in Australia is simply disingenuous,” said Graham Thom.

Amnesty International notes some commendable efforts being made by staff from the Department of Immigration and other agencies to improve conditions for people being detained. However, the organisation warns that the Australian Government risks creating increasingly serious problems if it does not immediately move to address in a more comprehensive way the problems emerging within the system.

“The Gillard Government needs to urgently move to a more sustainable means of processing asylum applications on the Australian mainland,” said Graham Thom.

“The last thing Australia should be seeking to do is export the problem to countries such as East Timor, when it is clear that our government has so far been incapable of dealing with the situation humanely on its own territory,” said Graham Thom.

Amnesty International believes that as a matter of priority, the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, should immediately arrange appropriate community alternatives to detention for families with children, unaccompanied minors and survivors of torture and trauma.

Background

From 2 – 9 October 2010 Amnesty International visited the Northern Immigration Detention Centre and the APODs (alternative places of detention) in Darwin, the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, and detention facilities on Christmas Island.

The visit was organised in cooperation with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. While visiting the centres Amnesty International had the opportunity to meet with detained asylum seekers on both an individual and group basis. The organisation also met with staff and service providers.