Australia to probe asylum seeker suicides

2011-07-29 07:07

Sydney – Australia said it would probe the high number of suicides and self-harm incidents among asylum seekers in immigration detention centres, including at the strife-hit Christmas Island site.

The country’s chief ombudsman Allan Asher said he was alarmed about the effect of long-term detention on mental health after more than 1 100 cases of threatened or actual self-harm were reported in the first half of the year.

“I was myself on Christmas Island at the end of June and there were 30 incidents in that week, and then across Australia in the first week of July, 50 incidents,” Asher told ABC television late yesterday.

“We think there is something seriously wrong that needs to be looked at.”

Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat, but has softened its stance in recent years to allow more women and children into the community as their refugee claims are assessed.

The move has left centres, including the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, with a large population of males now separated from their families, said Louise Newman, chair of the Detention Health Advisory Group.

Newman said there have been five suicides in detention since September last year, adding that almost every night one young man somewhere in the system attempts to hang himself.

“We all know that things are probably much worse in there then they have been for some time,” Newman told AFP.

“We’ve seen virtually every night at the moment somewhere in the system is a near-miss suicide.

“We’ve had outbreaks of group self-harming behaviour, people joining together to harm themselves.”

According to data obtained by the ABC, the situation has become so serious at Christmas Island that staff have been told to carry knives at all times so they can cut down detainees who have tried to hang themselves.

Inmates are also denied their own razors, the state broadcaster reported, saying that men who need to shave have to request a razor and then hand it back once they have finished.

The investigation into suicide and self-harm will look at the extent of the problem, gather demographic data about those involved as well as the length of time they spent in detention, and the potential roots of the behaviour.

The inquiry will also examine whether attempted or successful suicides and incidents of self-harm could trigger other incidents among inmates.

Newman said self-harming behaviour could be “very contagious”.

“When you get a group of distressed people in a confined environment, things spread and escalate very rapidly,” she said.

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