An Australian current affairs show has lifted the lid on the mental damage done to asylum seekers locked up, usually in remote areas, for prolonged periods.
You can watch the whole show here.
The show exposed how medication prescribed to asylum seekers is being misused, teenagers placed at risk of sexual assault and how many cases of self-harm are going unreported, giving the public a false impression of conditions behind the wire.
It asked: are people being damaged for life by such prolonged detention?
Australia has a mandatory detention policy and most are held for a year, but a significant proportion can be held for much longer.
Last year, the Australian Government announced that it would begin releasing children into the community to minimize the harm that they recognized was caused by their incarceration. About 800 have thus far been released.
What one healthcare professional told the show he had observed in the detention centers was:
People who seem to be in detention for periods of 12 to 15 months onwards, start to develop very significant mental health problems and certainly people who’ve been in detention 15, 18 plus months have very high rates of psychiatric morbidity.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Guy Coffey, among the 2,500 people held in the Darwin, Curtin and Christmas Island centers, there were 248 acts of self-harm and 520 expressions of intent to commit self-harm in the three months prior to September 30 this year.
What immigration detention does is disrupt what refugees have done for millenniums – find a place of safety and pour their energies into creating a new life. Detention defeats this ambition and throws detained asylum seekers back upon themselves.
The forced inactivity deprives them of the means to deal with their recent history, and they become prey to anxiety – about past trauma, about the progress of their protection applications, about their family’s safety.
For those with experiences of political imprisonment, detention directly recalls that experience, causing a constant sense of threat. The legally nice distinction between administrative detention and punitive incarceration is lost on them and many feel criminalised.
Coffey says that nothing like the patterns of self-harm seen amongst those detained for long periods occurs among asylum seekers in the community or resettled refugees.
In any other area of public policy a program that was known to directly cause such rates of distress and morbidity would be immediately halted. Detention policy is different. It is subject to endless commentary and inquiries, but the practice of extended detention continues.
A nurse at the Darwin detention center said she had been confronted by detainees trying to commit suicide “every single day, all day, every day.”
Mandatory detention is touted as a ‘deterrent,’ but Andrew Metcalfe, head of the Department of Immigration, bluntly told an Australian Senate hearing in October that:
“Detaining people for years has not deterred anyone from coming.”
The Australian government has consistently denied access to the centers to reporters. According to refugee activists, this is because the Government does not want the broader population seeing the conditions inside and the impact the camps are having on the detainees.
Drawing from child detainee by Karen Eliot