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The impact of detention
Being an asylum seeker is an inherently stressful status for
any person. They await a decision from the Australian Government that will
profoundly affect the rest of their lives – it may indeed have a life or death
consequence. The decision-making process is a complex and alien experience over
which they have little control, may little understand and which may take a long
and indeterminate time to conclude. Many are separated from family members who
have been left in circumstances of danger and deprivation. The pressures of
enduring prolonged uncertainty over such critical aspects of one’s existence
The Committee received considerable evidence on the impact of detention on
the mental health of detainees, notably children, as well as the resulting
strain on the detention network and staff who operate and work in facilities.
Evidence was taken on the complex and multifaceted causes and effects of the
strain which has resulted in sporadic eruptions of violence at a number of
detention facilities. The Committee paid particular attention to the special
circumstances and needs of children in detention.
The Committee visited the majority of detention centres around the
country during the course of its inquiry. Some of the evidence before the Committee
was sensitive in nature, and the subject matter inspires passionate views. In
many facilities, detainees bore the physical evidence of self harm: those who
had been treated for self-inflicted wounds were clearly visible. The Committee has
sought to conduct its inquiry with sensitivity towards all concerned, and has
therefore chosen not to delve into specific examples.
This chapter outlines the negative effects of detention and recommends a
number of measures to alleviate them.
Negative effects on detainees
A substantial and growing body of empirical evidence exists describing
the adverse effects mandatory detention has on health, particularly mental
Numerous...studies, conducted in Australia and
internationally, corroborate the link between restrictive immigration detention
and the development of mental health problems. Various medical and mental
health organisations also oppose prolonged restrictive detention, including the
Australian Medical Association.
The proportion of detainees affected by their detention bears careful
reflection. The Committee was told that:
One study by the Physicians for Human Rights found clinically
significant symptoms of depression were present in 86% of detainees, anxiety in
77% and PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] in 50% with approximately one
quarter reporting suicidal thoughts.
A submission from Suicide Prevention Australia cited extensive academic
research spanning a decade. The studies were numerous and the conclusions
unambiguous: detention corrodes mental health. One study estimated that:
...the rates of suicidal behaviour among men and women in Australian
IDC are approximately 41 and 26 times the national average, respectively.
Another study, completed in 2004 and cited by the Australian
Psychological Society, looked at parents and children who had spent
approximately two years in Australian detention centres. The study found that
every individual assessed 'met diagnostic criteria for at least one current
The overwhelming majority of submissions to this inquiry consistently
highlighted these adverse effects. Media reports of instances of attempted and
inflicted self harm barely scratch the surface of what has clearly become an
endemic problem in Australia's detention facilities, and one that must be
addressed in the interests of detainees and the staff who work with them, as
well as the integrity of the country's immigration detention policy.
This section will look at the ways in which people are affected by
Manifestations of mental health
Common symptoms of disorders among detainees are forgetfulness and
confusion, frustration, anger, loss of appetite, anxiety, poor hygiene,
insomnia, self harm, as well as thoughts of, and attempts at, suicide.
These symptoms and behaviours now appear commonplace among the long-term
detainee population. According to refugee advocacy groups the symptoms and
behaviours of people in held detention are in stark contrast to those of asylum
seekers who are placed in the community.
Frontline employees working in detention centres explained their
experience of the mental deterioration that detainees undergo:
The type of behaviour people engage in differs depending on
the person. They can become more reclusive, they stop talking, they’re not their
usual bubbly self. But others become aggressive, and especially you get these
natural born leaders who get a group of people together to support their cause
and that’s when you end up with 20 people on a roof. But the quiet ones are the
ones you have to watch. The loud and proud ones, you always know where they
are, because you can hear them. It’s the others that you have to keep a close
eye on, and if you haven’t seen or heard from them in a few hours then you need
to go and find them and check up on them. They are the ones that are likely to
slash up or try to hang themselves. We don’t worry as much about the loud ones.
Another employee related how detainees manifest perceptible changes over
It’s both the physical and mental well-being of clients
that’s affected. And you can see it change in the space of a week. If I go off
shift and come back a week later, I will see the changes. They will have put on
weight, for one thing. Because they have nothing to do but cooking and eating
and watching a bit of TV. They’re also agitated. And over time, good
relationships change. People revert into their shells, they become introverted,
they stop talking. And then some people start to be admitted into mental health
institutions – some of our cases have started to get more serious, as well. The
longer they’re here, the more they need medication. They go to the health
clinic to get drugs just to get through it.
An alarming number of detainees have resorted to self harming. The Committee
is not able to accurately estimate the current number or frequency of self harm
incidents, however it appears to be a regular occurrence. DIAC figures indicate
there were 386 self harm incidents in 2010–11.
The Chair of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution
(CISSR), Mr Paris Aristotle AM, in April 2011 'named increased rates of
self-harm as indicative of the crisis within the detention system and a general
deterioration of mental health.'
The Committee sought a professional psychiatric opinion on whether people
self harm in order to expedite their release or otherwise manipulate the
process. Dr Gynther, a psychiatrist with extensive experience working with
detainees, explained that a proper assessment is required to separate those
who are mentally ill from those whose actions are calculated to achieve an end:
Some of the people we see are severely damaged and are in the
middle of a psychiatric condition. Their self harm seems to be related purely
to their desperation and does not have a goal in mind. Others we have seen do
seem to have a goal—saying that, we don't feel these people have a major
psychiatric disorder—they are desperate, at the end of their rope, and they
have done this maybe in the hope that it is like their last playing card—the
last chip they can put down. I think it is a reasonable thing that people do.
If you have nothing else, and you can see no future, it is the sort of
desperate thing that someone will do. Then we have to try to deal with that on
the phone too, trying to make a judgment about whether this is a manipulative
thing—and a totally understandable manipulative thing—that we should deal with
in one way, or else is this truly a psychiatric problem that we need to be
treating with high doses of antidepressant medication? That is a really
difficult assessment on the phone. That is part of the reason they should be in
a place where they can be seen face-to-face because that is part of the
Although instances of self harm driven by a desire to manipulate the
process exist, Dr Gynther explained that the majority of self harm incidents
were due to real mental illness.
As well as incidents of self harm, there have been numerous suicide
attempts and nine deaths in detention centres in the 24 months to February
Suicide attempts are rarely reported in the media, and DIAC was not able to
provide the Committee with the exact number of suicide attempts during this
The detention service provider [Serco] is required to report
all self harm or threatened self harm incidents on the departmental reporting
system. Detention service provider staff are not qualified to assess whether a
self harm incident is actually a suicide attempt.
While the Committee recognises the difficulty Serco staff may in some
circumstances have in differentiating suicide attempts from other forms of self
harm, the Committee considers it far from ideal that DIAC is unaware of the
number of detainees trying to take their own lives.
Nonetheless, there is every reason to believe that suicide attempts
occur with troubling frequency. Adult male detainees in high security detention
facilities appear to be at greatest risk of suicide. They are also subject to
the longest processing times.
The Committee noted the professional opinions of psychiatrists with
experience of caring for detainees suffering from depression. Providing
psychiatric help for detainees with severe mental illness can, the Committee
heard, be a Sisyphean task:
As prolonged detention is the major precipitating stress for
psychiatric admission, staff and patients see our interventions as hopeless and
futile as eventually patients are always returned to Scherger [detention
facility] for further detention. A return to detention is a return to an
elevated risk of suicide...It is my opinion that the process of prolonged
detention is abusive. The ends cannot justify the means when it involves the
knowing abuse of innocent people.
The Committee also heard that at times people who had attempted suicide
were being placed back into detention despite advice to the contrary from
psychiatrists. Ms Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre brought
evidence of this to the Committee's attention:
I have got three letters from three different psychiatrists
for three men who were in Toowong Private Hospital [a psychiatric facility] and
in those letters the psychiatrists in each case said that they did not
recommend a return to detention because they felt that in each case the patient
would suffer a relapse of symptoms. In those cases their advice was ignored.
The patients were sent to the detention environment at the BITR and they were
left there, as we have said, for three weeks before they were eventually sent
to community detention.
The Committee sought clarity on this matter from DIAC. Mr John
Moorhouse, Deputy Secretary, explained that the Department considered
alternative detention options when managing people who had been medically
assessed as being severely mentally ill:
That would influence our decisions in a number of different
ways. If it were open to us to place a person in community detention, that
would be one response we could make to it. Of course, at the present time we
have the capacity to place a person in the community on bridging visas if we
feel that is appropriate and the person could cope and they had the support
from family and friends that might make that feasible. But, if we did not have
either of those options available to us, we would look to the least challenging
form of detention that is available to us, and that is what we do do. So, with
people who are struggling in detention who might not be eligible for community
detention or a bridging visa, for one reason or another, we would look to place
them in facilities such as immigration residential housing, which is as close
as possible to normal living conditions, usual community living conditions,
within a detention environment.
The Committee also learned that mental health staff can have a detainee
moved to a psychiatric facility if they consider it to be necessary, rather
than sending them back to detention. However, this decision has to be weighed
not only on the basis of the patient's state, but also the resources required:
If we want someone in a psychiatric hospital we can do that.
We will transfer them to the Cairns Base Hospital, where there is a psychiatric
ward. It is not a light decision. To transfer a person to Cairns Base Hospital
requires utilising the RFDS [Royal Flying Doctor Service]. There is a
logistical problem in doing so with only one plane in the cape. If we try to
organise it and there is a heart attack case somewhere else, or a car crash up
in Cape York, that plane will not be available. Or, if the plane is doing our
transfer, and there is a car crash somewhere else, the car crash call will have
to wait. So it is not a decision done lightly.
Patients at risk of suicide are nevertheless at times returned to
detention after a hospital visit. Dr Gynther submitted that DIAC had been responsive
to his advice on how best to handle such situations in the past:
At times we have made statements to the department saying
that we think a person is a huge risk. I actually spoke to someone from
immigration detention because a yes paper was on someone's out tray and hurried
it along so that it was signed, because I felt the person was at incredibly
high risk of suicide if that piece of paper was not signed. If someone remained
at risk and really sick, we would keep them in hospital indefinitely if
necessary, but we treat with medications and when you are away I think the
stress of the place diminishes.
Another psychiatrist the Committee spoke to, Dr Jon Jureidini, agreed
that placement played an important part in managing mental health:
My experience has been that people do not get to see me until
things are pretty bad, and by the time I am seeing them they have been damaged
by the experience of being in immigration detention. So part of the beginning
of any healing process involves them being placed in a different form of
detention that is not damaging to them.
Dr Jureidini, however, stated that in his experience as a mental health
professional he had limited ability to ensure detainees with mental health
problems were appropriately placed:
I have not been able to make it happen. There has been legal
action taken which has made it happen. There has been high-level action. In the
time that Jonathan Phillips was Director of Mental Health Services in South
Australia, he was able to take action to get certain people placed in
psychiatric hospitals when they needed to be, but at my level of intervention
my experience—the kind of modal experience, if you like—is to be told, 'Yes,
we'll help you with this, but actually it's not us who needs to do it; it's
DIMIA' [DIAC]. You go to DIMIA and they say, 'No, you need to talk to IMHS
about it.' You go back to IMHS and they send you back to DIMIA. So I have felt
completely impotent in working within the system to be able to help anybody to
get the mental health care they need in the vast majority of cases that I have
been involved in where families or children have been in immigration detention.
Speaking specifically about the impact of detention on people with
children to care for, Dr Jureidini added that placement in less restrictive
held detention, such as Alternative Places of Detention (APODs), was not a
silver bullet for dealing with the negative effects:
[L]ocking up somebody where it is relatively nice does not
protect them from the worst effects of being locked up.
How mental illness can influence
Furthermore, psychologists working with detainees posited that major
depressive disorders had the potential to influence refugee status
determination outcomes by compromising people's ability to present a coherent,
fact-based protection claim at critical times during the assessment process. As
put by Mr Guy Coffey, a clinical psychologist with 14 years of experience in assessing
detainees and former detainees:
A major depressive disorder can impair attention and short
term memory and introduce biases and distortions in the recollection of
personal history. Anxiety disorders can reduce concentration and short term
memory. Post traumatic conditions often result in an inability to accurately
recollect or describe traumatic events. Suffering from a disturbed mental
state, therefore, may disrupt an asylum seeker’s capacity to coherently and
consistently put their claims through instructions to their lawyer and at refugee
status interviews. These effects, according to the severity of the disorder,
may be subtle or conspicuous. They more often compromise the asylum seeker’s
ability to provide a detailed and consistent account of their experiences than
render them “unfit to testify”. The mental state of the detained population has
significant implications for procedural fairness in status resolution, which I
believe have not been fully acknowledged.
The Committee sought other professional opinions on this point. Dr
Gynther explained how people with post-traumatic stress disorder could have
difficulty engaging with the outside world:
People with post-traumatic stress disorder just withdraw.
They withdraw from friends and they have a loss of interest in activities. They
are models of this sort of thing. If you give a rat an electric shock, it will
run away. If you tie it down and give it repeated electric shocks, eventually
it just lies down. The same thing happens to people.
The Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), a legal centre assisting
asylum seekers, concluded from experience:
From a legal perspective, the mental health effects of
mandatory and prolonged detention have an alarmingly negative effect on an
applicants' legal case. As mental health deteriorates, applicants are less and
less able to effectively engage with the POD process, which relies on accurate
and detailed recall of past (often traumatic) events, in order to be found to
be credible by a decision-maker. RACS reiterates that the depression and
anxiety experienced by many applicants during detention awaiting the outcome of
their cases results in poor memory and concentration, anger, frustration, and
indignation. These negative emotions have an enormously detrimental effect on
our clients' abilities to present their claims properly. Some of RACS' clients
have reached states of such serious mental illness, frequently at the appeal
and review stages of their protection determination, that we have professional
concerns about their ability to give instructions and to understand their situation.
RACS also stated that DIAC's own analysis of cases overturned on IMR
(independent merits review) between January and April 2011, which indicates
that the psychological state of detainees was a contributing factor in the
overturn in 25 per cent of sampled cases, was further proof of the scale of
When asked whether mental health was considered when deciding protection
claims, DIAC stated:
[W]ere a person to provide such an assessment, of course it
would be taken into account. All matters that a person brings to our attention
are taken into account, but we would not normally commission such a report.
However, there is a well-known phenomenon that a person may over time provide
more information to us, and that I think in some way accounts for the overturn
rate that we see in relation to decisions upon review.
DIAC First Assistant Secretary, Ms Vicki Parker, added that a person's
'mental health and mental state can be quite relevant in terms of credibility,
which goes to the protection assessment.'
The Committee accepts that DIAC seeks to consider alternative placement
options where available when managing detainees with severe mental illness. The
Committee is of the view that it is a regrettable consequence of overcrowding
in the detention system that detainees who are at risk of suicide are at times
transferred straight from hospital back into high security detention
facilities. The Committee urges the Department to continue to monitor detainees
with severe mental illness and ensure their management is in line with medical
The Committee remains concerned about the impact mental health
degradation can have on an asylum seeker's ability to coherently make their
claim for protection. The Committee notes that medical professionals have
stated that mental illness can impair a person's ability to engage with the
outside world, and is therefore concerned that people could be failing to
recount important information to decision-makers without necessarily exhibiting
other signs of mental illness. The Committee acknowledges that DIAC will take
mental health assessments into consideration if they are provided by the
detainee; however, it must also be recognised that detainees are not in a
position to commission their own medical assessments.
Exacerbation of previous trauma
Detainees are often people who have feared or experienced some degree of
persecution or trauma prior to leaving their countries of origin. The effects
of mandatory detention should be assessed against this backdrop of pre-existing
In 2006 DIAC funded a study conducted by the University of Wollongong
which looked at health profiles of people in detention centres to 'identify an
appropriate health data collection system to provide a capacity to analyse the
health of people in immigration detention.' The study concluded that asylum seekers
were more likely than other detainees—such as people who have overstayed or
breached their visa—to suffer increased health problems.
The Australian Psychological Society commissioned a comprehensive
literature review in 2008, looking at the psychological vulnerability of
refugees. The review identified:
The significant psychosocial impact of the refugee experience,
including experiences of pre-migration trauma, migration and resettlement.
That people seeking asylum are at risk of mental health problems
based on specific risk factors including loss and trauma both prior to and post
arrival. Mental health problems may be expressed in various ways depending on
cultural background, personal experience and reception factors.
The important role that post-migration stressors may have on
adjustment, including the experience of loss, restricted access to appropriate
supports, and limited educational and employment opportunities.
The heightened risk of mental health problems among refugees who
are placed in detention, especially children.
Dr Gynther agreed that asylum seekers were particularly vulnerable as a
group due to previous trauma:
I think that that the actual process of prolonged involuntary
detention is an abusive process. The detainees that come to Scherger have come
from overseas. They have often been subject to trauma and significant loss
where they have come from, and then when they are detained for prolonged
periods of time they are effectively re-traumatised by the process. Many of the
patients have post-traumatic stress disorder, and one of the many symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder is loss of trust in others after how you have
been treated. That loss of trust is further amplified by the way we treat
people—by prolonged detention. I think this actually damages the patients in
the long term. It produces psychiatric illness and long-term damage for these
people, whether they are eventually released into the community or returned to
where they have come from. I think we are actually causing them harm. I think
that morally we cannot use a process that causes people harm with the purpose
of, say, preventing other people coming here. We cannot use this process as a
deterrent, because the cost of this is harm to other people.
As put by the Australian Psychological Society, detention is in itself
traumatic, and it exacerbates the effect of other traumas:
Detention has been found to have an independent, adverse
effect on mental health by exacerbating the impacts of previous traumas, and is
in itself an ongoing trauma.
In contrast, research shows that asylum seekers with pre-existing trauma
experience positive outcomes when they are 'afforded adequate rights and
provided with appropriate legal, settlement, mental health, education and
However, those who are re-traumatised as a result of detention have far
worse outcomes once they are released into the community:
I think by locking up people in this way where they see no
future, it goes on endlessly and they do not know what will happen to them it,
again, erodes that trust. I think we are basically re-traumatising people...That
means that, when they are released into the community, they will have more
severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a harder time relating to
other people because of their loss of trust because that is further undermined,
a harder time relating to their families and a harder time being a productive
member of the community.
A number of circumstances associated with prolonged detention contribute
to poor mental health outcomes. These include deprivation of freedom, a sense
of injustice and inhumanity, isolation, and growing feelings of demoralisation
These factors conflate to slowly, persistently corrode mental health, resulting
in both psychological and physical deterioration.
The Australian Human Rights Commission identified a number of factors
contributing to the degradation of mental health across the detention network:
The Commission is troubled about a number of key factors
that, in combination, are placing extreme pressures on asylum seekers and
refugees in detention facilities. These include the psychological impacts of
being detained for long periods with no certainty about when they will be
released or what will happen to them when they are; confusion about the refugee
status assessment process and frustration about delays with processing;
frustration and uncertainty about ASIO security assessment processes and
delays; and the fact that they are informed that if they seek judicial review
of their negative refugee assessment, they will remain in immigration detention
for the duration of that process.
Further evidence before the Committee consistently pointed to similar
exacerbating features of the detention experience. These include:
the undefined, uncertain length of detention;
the remoteness of facilities and harshness of climatic and
perceptions of unjust treatment and unjustified incarceration;
the absence of meaningful, stimulating activity.
These circumstances, which make prolonged detention a harrowing
experience, are not only individually challenging but can also produce a
powerfully negative mix:
The sense one is being incarcerated without just cause, the
indefinite term of detention, the control exerted over the minutiae of one’s
life, the lack of privacy, the monotony and lack of worthwhile activities, the
isolation and difficulty communicating, exposure to acts of violence, growing
tensions with other detainees and with detention officers – all these circumstances
undermine the asylum seeker’s psychological well being over time.
Indefinite periods of detention
From physicians, psychiatrists, human rights groups and refugee
advocates, to academics, lawyers and detainees themselves, the Committee heard
a consistent message from submitters and witnesses over the course of this
inquiry: it is the length of time people spend in an information vacuum in
detention that is the primary problem and contributor to stress. Not a single
submission put forth arguments to the contrary.
The previously mentioned 2006 University of Wollongong study, published
in 2010, looked at 720 health records from 2005–06 and found that people
detained for longer periods had a 'significantly larger' number of health
problems, both mental and physical.
Research also shows that only 3 per cent of people detained for under
three months developed new mental health problems, whereas that proportion rose
to 44.6 per cent when people were detained for more than two years.
According to the Refugee Advice and Casework Service asylum seekers routinely
spend up to 18 months in detention while their applications are processed and
DIAC's own figures
as at 31 January 2012 are as follows:
In answers to questions put on notice, DIAC informed the Committee that
the average processing time from arrival (for Irregular Maritime Arrivals –
IMAs) to visa grant was 279 days as of 18 July 2011.
This figure does not, however, take into account those asylum seekers who are
on a negative assessment pathway. Those in the latter category can spend
considerably longer in detention, and the Committee came across many cases of
people spending around or upwards of two years in detention.
Particular distress has also been observed among detainees waiting while
security assessments are conducted by the Australian Security Intelligence
Organisation (ASIO). These clearances are not conducted within a set timeframe,
nor are detainees kept abreast of their progress. This latter point is a
significant cause of anxiety.
A time limit on detention
Given that the length of detention appears to be a chief factor in
mental health deterioration, the Committee considered calls for a time limit to
be imposed. Evidence was heard from organisations such as the Law Council of
We are also arguing for a time limit on detention. A number
of submitters have said 30 days; some people say 60 days. All we are saying is
that there needs to be a time limit, because at the moment it is arguably
indefinite, and that is a breach of Australia's obligations.
This call for time limits to be placed on detention was echoed by a
number of other submissions, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission,
the Australian Psychological Society,
Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS),
and the Refugee Council of Australia (RCA).
The RCA called for this limit to be set at 30 days, 'during which time an
analysis of health, identity and security risks can be undertaken.'
RACS nominated a 90-day limit.
The Committee considered the view of the President of the Australian
Human Rights Commission, Ms Catherine Branson:
We have long urged that indefinite detention be abandoned,
because it is the indefinite nature of the detention as much as its length and
its location that we know to be damaging to people’s mental health. No doubt
expert evidence would have to be taken about what is a reasonable time to do
the checks that you have identified, but on the face of it 30 days seems to be
reasonable. I think it is very concerning that, as I understand it, two-thirds
of those people presently in detention have been there for longer than six
Others, such as Amnesty International, expressed support for imposing
time limits without nominating a specific time.
Some witnesses added that detention beyond any set time limit should be
subject to judicial review:
Any attempt to detain an asylum seeker for more than 30 days
should be subject to independent judicial review. This approach would ensure
the potential risks to the community are managed appropriately without
inflicting further harm on vulnerable people attempting to flee persecution. It
would also allow for continued detention in cases where genuine risks exist.
A submission from the regional representative of the United Nations
Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) points to the government's New
Directions in Detention policy and expresses concern that the key values
identified do not appear to have been adhered to:
Despite previous assurances of the Government of Australia
that the New Directions in Detention policy would apply to territories excised
from the migration zone, UNHCR is concerned that the Key Immigration Detention
Values have not been systematically applied in territories excised from the
‘migration zone’ or to persons arriving in excised territories.
While noting the discretionary nature of the power to detain
in an excised offshore place under current legislation, UNHCR is disappointed
that the Key Immigration Detention Values have not been explicitly and
systematically applied to refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons throughout
Australia, including those defined as Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) and
subject to the regime of ‘offshore processing’.
The remoteness of detention facilities isolates detainees in a physical
sense by making it difficult for service providers, doctors and lawyers to pay
regular, necessary visits. This in turn contributes to prolonging detention:
I have no doubt that the remoteness of location and the
obstacles that it presents—and there are quite a number of them—in terms of
advice and processing have resulted in prolonged detention of people. I think
one of the really important aspects of it is that, the longer someone is
detained in these remote locations, usually the less able they become to
actually engage fully in the process, because of the damage that it does to
people... When people become so damaged and so harmed by the detention, as we
know that they do, it becomes more difficult for them to fully engage in the
process of explaining their case, presenting evidence and working with their
Dr Bruce Gynther told the Committee how remoteness was also affecting
the quality of psychiatric care detainees were receiving:
The remote location of the Scherger facility means it is
usually not possible to have a psychiatrist or psychiatric registrar on site to
assess patients. A videoconference assessment or a relayed assessment from a
Medical Officer or Mental Health Nurse is far from ideal for these complex
cases. Transfer of the patients from Weipa to Cairns is difficult, and at times
not desirable for patient management.
He added that maintaining remote detention centres which were not close
to a major public hospital carried with it a considerable risk:
...[T]he degree and quality of the psychiatric care that we
can offer is really suboptimal. Even though we strive very hard and liaise with
the mental health nurses that are located in Weipa and the doctors at Weipa
Hospital and everyone does the best they can, in the end, for patients with
really severe psychiatric conditions who are suicidal and who have major
depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, I am making decisions over the
phone about their management, and it is just not acceptable. These patients
should have been admitted routinely. They should be close to a major hospital
so they can be admitted routinely, whereas with any other psychiatric admission
they would be seen within 24 hours by a training psychiatric doctor or a
psychiatrist, and then decisions can be made about their treatment and their
longer term management. I think that, with the way the situation is now, we are
just waiting for disaster, and I think that a tragedy is very likely to occur.
The Committee is aware that Dr Gynther was speaking specifically about
Scherger detention centre, in Far North Queensland. However, the point applies
to other remote centres.
Remoteness also curbs regular human contact with visitors, be they
friends, family or advocacy groups. Those who do persist despite this obstacle informed
the Committee that they found it increasingly difficult to spend time with
detainees due to tighter restrictions on visitors being imposed:
In the past, on previous visits, we were allowed into the
main compound to sit under a tree, and not only could we see the people who
were on our list but anyone could come up and speak with us. A couple of months
ago, on our visit, we actually collected some information; we distributed some
forms and we sent those off to this detention inquiry, because people wanted to
have a voice and some felt that they had not necessarily had their voices heard
during the visit by the inquiry, because that was time limited. But, on the most
recent visit, the rules suddenly seemed to change. My colleague was not allowed
into the main compound. She was shepherded off to a room and only allowed to
see six people on the list. Other people had requested, through other
detainees, to see her. They gave another list with additional names to Serco,
who refused—something about security reasons. People were very disappointed. I
think there is so much anxiety and tension in detention that to stop people
extending the hand of human kindness is just criminal, really.
For those whose families are overseas, family contact is even more
problematic. Detainees report that fear for family members who may face
persecution in their countries of origin is among their greatest sources of
anxiety. In situations where the detainee was the principal breadwinner, their
ongoing inability to earn money can have serious consequences for the family's
livelihood. Psychologists report that abandonment of family contacts is
frequently a concerning sign that a detainee has lost hope.
The Committee recommends that, as a matter of policy, the Department of
Immigration and Citizenship accommodate detainees in metropolitan detention
facilities wherever possible, in particular children and families, and those
detainees with special needs or with complex medical conditions.
Absence of meaningful activity
Generally speaking, the Committee found from its visits to detention
centres that living conditions were of varying quality but provided for
people's basic needs. Although detainees identified particular inadequacies in
terms of the standard of food and accommodation available, these seemed to be
of secondary concern.
As one submitter put it:
[Length of detention] issues are of more concern to detainees
than the fact that the taps don't drip or that there is coloured play equipment
in the compound. In general the physical facilities are sterile but adequate.
It's the indefinite powerlessness, hopelessness and the lack of freedom,
choice, privacy and creativity that is so cruel. There are no torture marks on
their bodies but the torture by bureaucracy is real and I have witnessed its
And in the words of a former detainee:
If they make all the walls or fence with gold, there is
nothing different, there is nothing changed, prison is prison, still this
system keeps me in detention for no reason.
Serco's contractual obligations to provide programs and activities are
covered in greater detail in Chapter 3. However, in this context the Committee
briefly observes that recreational options available to detainees vary across
the centres, according to factors such as whether facilities are purpose built,
their location and the length of time the each is to be used as a detention
Each detention site has a manager who is responsible for developing a monthly
Programs and Activities Plan. The plan aims to reflect detainee needs, which
Serco identifies through consultation. Plans deliver both structured and
unstructured programs that:
enhance detainee physical and psychological wellbeing;
help build positive relationships both between detainees and
between detainees and staff; and
help maintain security on site.
Submitters questioned the adequacy of available recreational activities,
however, arguing that most were 'ways to pass time but are not related to any
objective or to the acquisition of any particular skill,' with English classes
being the exception. Available activities 'occupy a small part of the day and
the rest of the time is spent wiling away the hours.'
The Human Rights Commission also pointed out that depression was
preventing detainees from participating in what little activity was available
to them to pass the time, which further increased the severity of the problem
and led to possible overreliance on medication:
During recent visits, the Commission heard from people in
detention about the psychological harm that prolonged detention was causing
them. People at Villawood spoke of experiencing high levels of sleeplessness,
feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, thoughts of self-harm or suicide,
and feeling too depressed, anxious or distracted to take part in recreational
or educational activities. The Commission was troubled by the palpable sense of
frustration and incomprehension expressed by many people. This appeared to have
contributed to marked levels of anxiety, despair and depression, leading to
high use of sedative, hypnotic, antidepressant and antipsychotic medications
and serious self-harm incidents.
As a consequence of waning mental health and little opportunity to
engage in purposeful activity, detainees often 'come to see recreational
activities as increasingly pointless.'
After prolonged detention, even the most determined are defeated:
Despite the obstacles, some asylum seekers make a concerted
effort to maintain a routine by spending time privately learning English,
observing prayer times, writing emails to friends and exercising regularly.
After an extended period of detention, however, this tends to be the exception.
This absence of meaningful activity compares negatively even with the
It is notable that arrangements in many prisons provide more
opportunity for worthwhile activities including work of various kinds and the
possibility of study through an external educational institution. Although
administrative and purportedly nonpunitive, in this respect conditions in
immigration detention centres are inferior to that of many prisons.
Powerlessness over own fate and perceptions
People's experience of detention is also affected by how they perceive
the situation they are in. Many report feeling 'criminalised', or, as one
detainee put it in a submission from the Forum of Australian Services for
Survivors of Torture and Trauma (FASSTT):
We were wondering: why are we here? Are we criminals? We
killed someone? We stole something? Why do they detain us?
FASSTT explained that this is a common feeling among detainees:
Detention facilities are experienced as prisons because they
treat people as presenting such risks to the community that they must be
confined behind fences and subject to constant surveillance. It should also be
recalled that many asylum seekers were imprisoned in their countries of origin and
detention facilities represent all too vivid reminders of the persecution that
they have fled. By aggravating past trauma, immigration detention may cause
harm that impairs people’s health and wellbeing for a significant period
following their release to settle in Australia (the majority of asylum seekers)
or return to their country of origin.
As put by Mr Guy Coffey, a clinical psychologist:
The legal distinction between administrative and punitive
custody is not apparent to the detained asylum seeker. Detention is often
viewed as unjust, and increasingly with the passage of time, as an affront to
the legitimacy of their claims ‐
that they are being punished for asking for protection.
The detention experience is so regimented that people are not allowed to
make ordinary decisions about their daily lives.
Detainees may be subject to highly intrusive treatment, including strip
This, along with a lack of understanding of the process they are in or how it
is different from criminal incarceration, leaves many detainees feeling
confused, unjustly punished and ashamed:
The fact of the deprivation of liberty becomes increasingly
oppressive with time. A majority of asylum seekers, particularly after about 6‐9 months of detention
and after one or more negative visa application decisions, experience detention
as punitive and criminalising. Commonly they implore you to explain what offence
they have committed and why they are being punished. The legal account of their
predicament, that under Australian law unlawful non citizens must be detained, usually
doesn’t allay a growing sense that something retributive is occurring. Those in
centres shared with people detained due to visa cancellation owing to serious
offending point to the injustice of being categorised with them. For some
asylum seekers, the extensive security related interviews, which are usually
far longer than the interviews assessing refugee status, suggest to them there
is a greater focus on anti‐people
smuggling operations, and identifying threats to public security than on
assessing the need for protection. Many of those in contact with their families
have increasing difficulty explaining why they are still detained and face
questions from family members as to whether they have committed an offence.
The Committee also received evidence suggesting that some detainees
believe the assessment process for refugee status is capricious and potentially
subject to political interference. Many detainees are of the view that
assessment criteria are not uniform, and that certain assessors interpret the
frame of reference for protection visas more harshly than others. This sense of
injustice—justified or otherwise—exacerbates feelings of helplessness and
This belief was echoed during in camera hearings the Committee
held with a number of detainees across the network.
Visitors to detention facilities similarly reported finding them to be
highly controlled environments. Dr Linda Briskman, director of the Curtin
University's Centre for Human rights, described her experience of being kept
under surveillance during visits to facilities, extrapolating from that that
detainees must experience far worse treatment:
I have experienced being accompanied to the toilet by two
men. Another colleague, who was there last week, had her tampon box inspected
before she went to the toilet. If we are experiencing this sort of surveillance
and control, we can only imagine what it is like for the asylum seekers.
The after-effects of detention
Studies indicate that the harm caused by prolonged detention continues
to affect people once they are in the community. People who experience negative
mental health effects as a consequence of detention frequently continue to
suffer a sense of powerlessness and compromised self esteem beyond the period
[Studies] found that along with significant psychological
harm caused while in detention, psychological consequences of detention continue
post-release even after the gaining of permanent residency. The severe
difficulties experienced by all participants in this study included a sense of
insecurity and injustice, relationship difficulties (half the participants
identified that they resorted to isolating themselves), profound changes to
view of self (loss of role as protector and provider for families and a more
general loss of agency) and mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety,
PTSD, low quality of life and persistent and debilitating problems with concentration
This, of course, means that former detainees experience difficulty
adjusting once they enter the wider society. Studies show:
[S]everal years after being released from detention, most
participants showed clinically significant levels of depression and symptoms of
post traumatic stress disorder. The difficulties participants spoke of in their
current lives appear to be a direct transposition of the kinds of harm
experienced while detained. It is contended that the enduring nature of these
adverse psychological effects can be understood in terms of changes to core
belief systems affecting views of the self and relationships, and values about
justice and humanity.
The psychological harm caused by detention may therefore impact on the
settlement process once people are granted permanent protection visas, as most
asylum seekers are, and settled into the community. This, in turn, 'inevitably
requires further government investment in public, health and mental health
services,' while asylum seekers 'who are deported are returned with increased
Effects on children in detention
Submissions disclosed strong condemnation of the detention of children. The
Committee did not receive any evidence supporting the detention of children,
and examples of opposition to the practice are far too numerous to cite
exhaustively. The views of a few organisations are listed below.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (Human Rights Commission):
The Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the
mandatory detention of children, the number of children in immigration
detention and the prolonged periods for which many children are detained...
... The Commission welcomes the movement of a significant
number of families and unaccompanied minors from secure detention facilities
into community detention since October 2010...
... However, the Commission is concerned that a substantial
number of children, including unaccompanied minors, remain in immigration
detention. At 30 June 2011, 991 children were in immigration detention in
Australia, including 478 in closed immigration detention facilities. The
Commission remains opposed to the mandatory detention of children because it
breaches Australia's international human rights obligations and creates a high
risk of serious mental harm.
Suicide Prevention Australia:
The psychological vulnerabilities of child refugee claimants
held in IDC have produced much local and international concern and research.
The 2002 review by Thomas and Lau investigated the mental health of child and
adolescent detainees observing that posttraumatic stress symptoms are common.
These are demonstrated in such symptoms as: very high anxiety, social
withdrawal, regressive behaviours, flashbacks, sleep disturbance, exaggerated
startle responses, poor concentration, conduct problems, aggressive behaviour,
delinquency, nightmares and acting out. Holding young people in immigration detention
is a negative socialisation experience, accentuating developmental risks, threatening
the bonds between children and their caregivers, limits educational opportunities,
traumatic psychological impact and reduces the potential to recover from pre-migration
trauma (APS 2008).
The Detention Health Advisory Group (DeHAG) expressed its fundamental
opposition to placing children in any form of restrictive detention.
The Northern Territory Branch of the Australian Medical Association referred to
the detention of asylum seeker children as 'a form of child abuse'.
The Committee heard that children in detention are at particular risk of
suffering long-term consequences. These can manifest in varied ways and to
different extents depending on the circumstances of the individual. Impacts can
be physical, psychological, or both, and can affect ongoing development:
It has been well demonstrated that prolonged and indefinite
immigration detention can have significant adverse impacts on the health,
safety and welfare of the children subject to detention and their families.
During the Inquiry, the Commission found that prolonged detention in remote
facilities prevented children from enjoying their right to the highest
attainable standard of health. Significant numbers of children in immigration
detention experienced psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder, that were either caused or exacerbated by
long-term detention. The Inquiry also found evidence that the detention
environment contributed to developmental delay in some young children. Further,
the Inquiry was presented with numerous examples of self-harm by children in immigration
detention, particularly among longer-term detainee children.
The Committee also notes that the psychological wellbeing of parents has
significant bearing on how well children are able to cope in detention:
As a rule of thumb, if you have a small child who is in a
stressful and distressing environment, the strongest predictor and mediator of
how they are going to do in that environment is the wellbeing of their parents.
If their parents are strong and well supported, then they tend to be able to
get children through adversity. So, almost universally, it has been the case
with the young children whom we have seen in immigration detention over the
years who are doing very badly that their parents have got to the point where
they are not able to carry out the ordinary protective parenting that they were
capable of carrying out when they arrived in Australia. That pattern has been
repeated. We have written that up and it is published and it is quite a clear
pattern that occurs. It has been the same in Inverbrackie, as it was in Woomera
and Baxter [former high security detention facilities].
The Committee received no evidence to contradict the view that detention
was an unhealthy and damaging environment for children.
The most recent figures available to the Committee indicate that, as at
14 March 2012, there were 254 unaccompanied minors in immigration detention
facilities, and 130 in community detention.
Save the Children, the Australian branch of the world's largest
independent child rights development organisation, pointed out that
unaccompanied children were at particular risk:
Children held in immigration detention centres are at high
risk of serious mental harm. They may witness riots, suicide attempts and
self-harming behaviour. Often parents are powerless to comfort distressed
children who may experience feelings of hopelessness and depression, in the
case of unaccompanied children, there are simply no guardians to reassure them.
As a particularly vulnerable group, unaccompanied children are entitled
to 'special protection and assistance' under the United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which states:
child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or
in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment,
shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State.
Parties shall in accordance with their national laws ensure alternative care
for such a child.
care could include, inter alia, foster placement, kafalah of Islamic law,
adoption or if necessary placement in suitable institutions for the care of
children. When considering solutions, due regard shall be paid to the
desirability of continuity in a child's upbringing and to the child's ethnic,
religious, cultural and linguistic background.
The Human Rights Commission, among others, raised concerns relating
particularly to unaccompanied minors. The Commission was:
...concerned that there continues to be an inherent conflict
of interest in having the Minister or his DIAC delegate act as the legal
guardian of unaccompanied minors in immigration detention. The Commission has repeatedly
recommended that an independent guardian should be appointed for all
unaccompanied minors in immigration detention. DIAC has informed the Commission
that it acknowledges the 'perceived conflict of interest' and has informed the
Commission that policy work is being progressed to improve the guardianship
The Committee notes community concern regarding the guardianship of
unaccompanied minors, and recognises the potential for a conflict of interest
to arise where the Minister is simultaneously responsible for detaining asylum
seekers for the purposes of processing their claims and acting in the best
interest of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. The Committee is of the view
that the legal guardianship of unaccompanied minors in immigration detention should
be transferred from the Minister for
Immigration as soon as practicable.
The Committee recommends that relevant legislation be amended to replace
the Minister for Immigration as the legal guardian of unaccompanied minors in
the immigration detention system.
Psychological impacts on children
The Human Rights Commission has spoken to many children in detention and
their families over a number of years. Many, the Commission reports, express
'confusion, frustration and distress about their situation.'
Other submissions echo this view. Headspace, the National Youth Health
Foundation, spoke of the scale and severity of the problem:
Some commentators have stated that the severity of mental
health issues is linked to children’s ongoing detention and that the impact of
detention outweighs that of pre-migration experiences in the development of
mental health issues. One study of 20 children found that after two years in
detention all children were diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder
and 80 per cent were diagnosed with multiple disorders, compared with only one
child from initial assessment (time of arrival).
The Committee is also deeply troubled by the fact that a number of
children currently find themselves in indefinite detention.
This is understandably having a seriously detrimental effect on the mental
health of entire families, but most alarmingly on children who are in this
predicament by virtue of a parent's adverse assessment. The Committee spoke to
a number of people in this situation, and believes all are negatively impacted
by the circumstances they find themselves in. The following refers to a
psychiatric assessment of one such child and his family:
The second family member I am most concerned about is [ ],
the three year old son. The history and brief observation of him indicate that
he may be abnormally sad and anxious and could be malnourished. I am certainly
concerned that his normal development has been seriously disrupted and
continues to be.
Overall the [ ] family appear to be a normal family, with
normal and caring relations between each other, who have been very adversely
affected by the environments in which they have been living for the last two
years, and continue to be so. Neither Mr nor Mrs [ ] have any significant
personality disturbance. The attitude of both appeared to be sadness,
puzzlement and helplessness, with an absence of anger or resentment. Mrs [ ]
is seriously depressed at present, but her premorbid functioning, prior to the
last two and a half years, was good, and there was no history of previous
depressive or other psychiatric illness. Her depressive state can be
appropriately understood in terms of the severe stressors she and her family
have been experiencing during the last two and a half years, and the major
uncertainty about what will happen to them.
Human rights obligations towards
Recent improvements notwithstanding, other submissions questioned
Australia's fulfilment of its obligations towards children in detention under
international human rights standards. A number were of the view that the Australian
legislative regime was in breach of Article 37(b) of the United Nations Convention
on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC),
No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully
or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in
conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and
for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The UNCRC is not enforceable in Australian courts.
In 2005 the Howard Government amended section 4AA of the Migration
Act 1958, affirming 'that a minor shall only be detained as a measure of
Then in 2008 the Rudd Government's New Directions policy stated:
Children, including juvenile foreign fishers, and, where
possible, their families, will not be detained in an immigration detention
While children are not held in high security immigration detention
centres, they nonetheless continue to be detained in restrictive detention
facilities. As of 30 June 2011 there were 991 children held in Australia's
immigration detention facilities.
On 31 January 2012 that number was 528,
while on 14 March 2012 the number of children in detention stood at 479, of
whom 59 were awaiting transfer into community detention.
Furthermore, a submission from the Australian Children's Commissioners
and Guardians (ACCG) pointed to the absence of a uniform, national policy on
child safety in Australia's immigration detention network:
The arrangements for notification, investigation and response
to suspected abuse of children vary significantly from one detention centre to
the next. Other than in South Australia, there are no clear protocols in place
between the Commonwealth Government and the relevant statutory child protection
agencies for the reporting of child abuse and neglect.
To address this, ACCG called for Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to be
introduced between DIAC and relevant state and territory authorities.
The Human Rights Commission added workers were often unaware of
procedures in place regarding children in detention and also called on every
Australian jurisdiction to introduce clear protocols:
We do not think it has to be the same across the country, but
we do think in every jurisdiction there should be a protocol and a proper
understanding about what is the procedure to be followed with respect to child
welfare...We have spoken to people in authority in detention centres who have
not known what was the appropriate course to adopt if, for example, there was
an allegation of child abuse or if they found a child at risk. It is very often
state and territory authorities who are nearest to where the children are and
therefore most suitable to step in and protect children at risk, but they need
to understand what their authority is. Those within the centres need to know
when to contact them and how to do that.
The Committee shares community unease regarding the wellbeing of
children in detention, and is concerned by the absence of a uniform code
outlining child protection obligations, including the reporting of suspected
child abuse. The Committee believes strong arguments exist for the
establishment of such a code.
Recognising that an MOU between DIAC and South Australia's Department
for Families and Communities already exists, the Committee supports calls for
MOUs to be established between DIAC and children's commissions or commissioners
across the states and territories. The Committee is of the view that these MOUs
should stipulate protocols for reporting, investigating and responding to
suspected child abuse and should apply to the management and care of all asylum
seeker or refugee children within the immigration system, including those in
community detention and on bridging visas.
The Committee recommends that the Department of
Immigration and Citizenship develop and implement a uniform code for child
protection for all children seeking asylum across the immigration system.
The Committee further recommends that the Department of
Immigration and Citizenship adopt Memoranda of Understanding with children's
commissions or commissioners in all states and territories as soon as possible.
At the outset of this inquiry DIAC pointed towards a growing body of
evidence underpinning efforts to speed up the removal of children from held
Recent studies have highlighted that detention has an impact
on children and families with many noting that detention can be associated with
post-traumatic stress disorder, high levels of depression and poor mental health
as well as an increase in the deterioration of mental health along with time
spent in detention.
CISSR and other stakeholders have recommended that, under a
mandatory detention legislative framework, vulnerable individuals and families
should be placed in arrangements such as community detention.
DIAC informed the Committee that children were increasingly being taken
out of held detention:
Women, children and vulnerable people have been increasingly
accommodated in community detention and other alternative detention
arrangements. These provide an environment more suitable for the needs of these
groups than immigration detention centres.
The DIAC charts below
illustrate this movement in recent months:
In October 2010 the number of children in community detention was only
At its final hearing, the Committee heard that 1500 children had been approved
for community detention. On 29 February 2012, Mr Andrew Metcalfe, Secretary of
DIAC, reported considerable progress towards removing children from detention
All eligible unaccompanied minors who arrived in Australia
prior to 30 November 2011 have been granted community detention. All
accompanied children and their families who arrived in Australia prior to 31
October 2011 have been granted community detention. At the same time, over
1,400 clients have transitioned out of community detention following the grant
of a protection visa.
The Committee acknowledges and commends the substantial effort that is
required in moving large numbers of people, including children, out of held
detention. The Committee notes DIAC's considerable efforts towards this goal.
The Committee also acknowledges that this endeavour is in keeping with
the spirit of the New Directions policy announced in 2008, which
includes the undertaking that:
Detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used
as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.
The Committee stresses, however, that since this policy was announced in
2008 many people have remained in held detention for over a year, some for over
two years. The Committee finds such long periods of detention for people who
have passed identity, health and character checks to be unacceptable. The Committee
therefore supports calls for all reasonable steps to be taken to limit the
duration of detention of asylum seekers, during which period initial health,
identity and security checks can be completed, and after which either community
detention or bridging visas should be granted. The Committee points to evidence
from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the UNHCR indicating that
detaining asylum seekers for any other purpose than assessing identity, health
and security status may be contrary to Australia's obligations under
The Committee is deeply concerned by the fact that children whose
refugee parents are currently not being released into the community due to
adverse security assessments also face indefinite detention. The Committee takes
very seriously evidence provided by psychiatrists concerning the immediate and
long-term psychological and developmental effects living in detention with no
prospect of release can have on a young child, and finds the circumstances
these children are in to be unacceptable. The Committee is aware that it is best
for these children to remain with their parents, and is cognisant of the
arguments concerning their refugee parents' possible release, discussed
elsewhere in this report. However, despite the complex nature of this problem,
the Committee firmly believes the government must take immediate, concrete
steps to remedy this situation.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government take further
steps to adhere to its commitment of only detaining asylum seekers as a last
resort and for the shortest practicable time, and subject to an assessment of
non-compliance and risk factors, as enunciated by the New Directions policy.
The Committee further recommends that asylum seekers who pass
initial identity, health, character and security checks be immediately granted
a bridging visa or moved to community detention while a determination of their
refugee status is completed, and that all reasonable steps be taken to limit detention
to a maximum of 90 days.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Immigration and
Citizenship be required to publish on a quarterly basis the reasons for the
continued detention of any person detained for more than 90 days, without
compromising the privacy of the individuals.
Impact of prolonged detention on the detention network
Pressure on the detention network is strongly correlated with pressure
on people in detention and rising rates of distress and self harm:
For example, the high numbers of IMAs in 2001 and 2002
correlated with the high numbers of detainees engaging in voluntary starvation
and self-harm. This is similar to today’s situation.
As pressure on individuals increases, so do instances of riots and other
disturbances. The response to and management of riot situations is covered
elsewhere in this report. This section looks at the causes of disturbances.
DIAC provided a graph illustrating this correlation between serious
incidents in detention and the number of detainees (2001/02–2010/11):
Due to a sharp increase in arrivals, the detention network has been in
surge conditions since the end of 2009.
This has led to overcrowding, which in turn exacerbates the pressure on
detainees and the network. It can, according to the Detention Health Advisory
Group (DeHAG), also 'increase the risk of adverse outcomes.'
Riots, incidents and disturbances
According to DIAC records, 9157 incident reports were received from
Serco between 1 October 2009 and 30 June 2011.
Incident classifications range from minor to critical and cover everything from
minor accidents to serious accidents, violence, media presence and escape from
Causes of incidents are multifaceted. Overwhelmingly, submissions to
this inquiry held that violent, destructive and disruptive behaviour was one of
the negative by-products of prolonged detention and a detention system which is
failing to process cases in a timely and transparent fashion. A submission from
the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) pointed to the
perceived injustice of mandatory detention, in some cases magnified by
conditions of detention, which acts to motivate sporadic eruptions of
disruptive conduct by detainees. People's 'normal inhibitions against violent,
destructive and otherwise wrongful behaviour' are broken down by prolonged
An example provided by Australian Lawyers for Human Rights illustrated
how emotions can boil over:
An ALHR member is visiting an asylum seeker currently
detained at the NIDC [Northern Immigration Detention Centre] who was accepted
as a refugee in May 2010 but is still awaiting a security clearance. The prolonged
nature of this process has caused considerable distress and anxiety to this man.
In June 2011, he embarked on a five day hunger strike on the roof of NIDC. There
are many other cases similar to this at NIDC.
The Australian Psychological Society explained that both inward and
outward aggression were predictable responses in certain situations, such as
Social psychologists have documented that extreme behaviour
is a common outcome in situations where people lack personal control, social
connection and hope. Long-term detention can be a dehumanising experience for
detainees, and it is recommended that elevated rates of aggression directed
outwards and inwards as self-harm be understood as predictable responses to
this context and not as manipulative or attention seeking behaviour.
Looking at the occurrence of disturbances within immigration detention
facilities, the Australian Human Rights Commission referred to the link between
mounting distress and frustration and outward acts of violence and property
The Commission does not condone acts of violence or property
destruction in immigration detention facilities. It is important to recognise,
however, the context which preceded these disturbances. The Commission believes
that the issues relating to the processing of claims for asylum described above
have contributed to the recent unrest in immigration detention facilities. Many
people had been held in detention for a year or more, with no end in sight, and
without the ability to challenge their ongoing detention in a court. Many were acutely
frustrated by the time being taken to process their refugee claims, serious
delays with security assessments and a lack of regular updates on progress with
cases. Some were feeling pressured to return to countries where they believed
they faced persecution or danger. The significant uncertainty, frustrations and
tensions experienced by people in detention may have contributed to the unrest
that has been seen in immigration detention facilities in recent months.
DIAC, Serco and Australian Federal Police (AFP) critical incident
management and response plans and implementation are outlined in Chapter 8.
The Committee holds that individuals are responsible for maintaining
proper conduct. However, apportioning responsibility for individual and group
behaviour can become problematic when conditions beyond the individual's
control are not conducive to optimal mental health and appropriate cognitive
functioning. The Committee does not excuse criminal behaviour where and if it
exists. However, the Committee cautions that maintaining a system in which
desperate people are kept confined without charge for prolonged periods is
almost guaranteed to result in further disturbances and possibly even violent
outbursts of pent-up emotion. The Committee believes that focusing on
minimising the time people who have passed identity, health and character checks
spend in detention will help not only them, but also those managing the
Impact on staff
Frontline workers are employed across the detention network from a
variety of occupational backgrounds. Their roles vary, but include providing
security, support and welfare, as well as cleaning services and food
preparation. They spend many hours in the detention environment, and this can
have a negative effect on them as well as the detainees themselves. As put by
United Voice, a union with coverage of employees engaged in frontline operation
of detention facilities:
In many ways, the experiences and conditions of workers
within the immigration detention network mirror those experienced by asylum
seekers. Employees are faced with a work environment which is often unsafe.
They experience impediments such as a lack of training and understaffing which
prevent them from performing their jobs to the best of their
abilities...Moreover, immigration detention network employees are subject to
public scrutiny and vilification for the work they do from both sides of the
political spectrum. Despite being on the front-line of the Government’s
immigration detention system, they receive limited support from both their
employer Serco Australia Pty Ltd (Serco) - contracted to run the centres - and
the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). At the same time, workers
are severely restricted in their ability to speak publicly about their
experiences within the immigration detention network, due to the strict
confidentiality agreement entered into between the Federal Government and
Serco. Serco in turn imposes confidentiality restrictions on its employees.
United Voice believes that this lack of transparency is detrimental to the overall
well-being of both workers and asylum seekers within the immigration detention
A submission from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash
University, cited the example of a staff member who managed the Woomera
facility (no longer used for detention) for 18 months:
'I was suicidal. I couldn’t go out of the house. I couldn’t
get off the couch. I was basically a vegetable.'
The submission added that many of the concerns from Woomera were now
present in detention facilities across the country, with troubling consequences:
It has been reported that overstaffing, inadequate staff
training and minimal counselling have contributed to trauma among contractors
employed by Serco. One former guard employed at Christmas Island reported that
binge drinking is common among staff and that some reported for work in an
intoxicated state in order to manage the stress entailed in performing their
In this vein, the Australian Psychological Society described how the
mental health of workers in detention centres can be compromised:
Psychologists have long been concerned for the health, safety
and wellbeing of those working in these detention centres, as they can
eventually be overwhelmed by despair, and with various methods become
disengaged from the clients in order to protect their own mental health. This
can be a particular concern in remote locations, where workers are without
their families, alcohol is cheap and there are few leisure alternatives and few
support systems, staff can be easily relaxed in a way in which their own mental
health needs can become compromised.
A statement from a detention centre employee, quoted in a submission
from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), raised the question of
adequate training for staff to be able to cope with the environment they work
“I currently work in a detention centre that houses families
with babies and young children and unaccompanied minors... I am exposed to
clients on a daily basis. Some of this exposure is pleasant and some not. I
also am exposed to some of the specific incidents that occur at a detention
centre on a day to day basis including details of self harm incidents. Although
I have worked in the public service for many years I have not been exposed to
such raw and direct personal interaction which I have no skill sets to deal with.”
The question of adequate training for Serco employees is covered in
Chapter 3 of this report. However, the Committee is cognisant of the effect
inadequate skills can have on a person's ability to cope with a stressful
Detention centre staff also report feeling judged negatively by the
community, or indirectly held responsible because they implement policies they
play no part in deciding:
[D]etention centre workers feel unjustly associated with the
public negativity surrounding the system of immigration detention itself. They
feel scrutinised within public debate as perpetrators of detention, while the
care and consideration that they put into helping detainees is not acknowledged.
Serco informed the committee that its staff have access to an
independently provided employee counselling service. The service operates a
confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which provides:
telephone based professional counselling and support services
face to face off-site professional counselling and onward
referral if required for all Serco employees and their immediate families at no
advice on work-related issues affecting psychological aspects of
occupational health and safety issues; and
critical incident support at the workplace when required.
As discussed in Chapter 2, Comcare also conducted a work health and
safety investigation of seven detention facilities in 2011. The investigation
was initiated due to concerns about the health and safety of workers,
contractors and detainees:
The concerns included the impact of work pressure and the
risk of harm and mental stress. We were aware of early reports on similar
issues from the Commonwealth Immigration Ombudsman and the Australian Human
Rights Commission. The investigation was conducted during a period of
extraordinary demand on IDFs and challenging pressures on safety and systems.
Acknowledging that system, the investigation found that overcrowding
consistently presented as the most prevalent concern of staff and detainees.
Following the investigation and report, in November 2011 Comcare told
the Committee that DIAC was implementing its action plan, which will improve
standards in risk management, staff rations, training for employees, critical
incident and detainee diversity management. Comcare advised they were
monitoring the implementation of this action plan.
At a public hearing on 22 November 2011 the Committee requested that a
copy of this plan be provided by Comcare. The plan was not provided at the time
of writing, 28 March 2012, despite repeated approaches to Comcare.
The Committee is aware that officers working in detention facilities are
far more exposed to the human cost of detention than policymakers. Few can be
immune to the impact of working in an environment where many people at any
given time are anxious, angry or depressed, where watching people resort to
self harming has become a routine fact of life. As put by DIAC Deputy Secretary
Detaining people is a confronting task. It is not an easy
thing to do. If anyone thinks that locking other people up is easy, they have
never had to do it. It is not easy; it is a challenging thing for us in the
department and it is a challenging thing for the people who work with us...[I]t
has been challenging for us as we have had to step up and build up the network.
I am privileged to work with a very large group of professional and capable
people, but I do not have enough people with the sort of experience and
expertise that I would like. I have some great people but never enough of them,
and it is exactly the same for the people who are right in the front line, the
The Committee therefore supports DeHAG's call for staff to be given
'ready access to debriefing and psychological support including on site
counsellors as required.'
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