Mental Harm Caused by Prolonged Immigration Detention

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.

Coffey said:

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.


Related stories:

Israel Proposing Indefinite Detention of Refugees (Video)

Abused and Trafficked Women Losing Children Under Immigration Regime (Video)

More Complaints on Treatment of LGBT Refugee and Immigrant Detainees

Drawing from child detainee by Karen Eliot


Christina B.
Christina B6 years ago

Those poor people... Away from their families, alone and locked up, with no hope and no help... It doesn't take much to finally snap.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Danielle b.
Danielle b6 years ago

If these people would rather risk their lives and come to Australia knowing full well they will be locked up for an unknown amount of time, risking their physical and mental health for the second time, WHAT DOES THAT TELL YOU ABOUT WHERE THEY ARE COMING FROM?! For God's sake people, you ask "what sane person would not find detention a deterrent?". Simple: The one who has got a lot more to be afraid of back home.

Jennifer M.
Jennifer M6 years ago

Whoever made the rule that countries are owned by governments?? It's ridiculous. We are all human, the entire planet is OURS. Screw borders

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

“Detaining people for years has not deterred anyone from coming.” One would think that it would deter a sane person. I have wondered how a person locked up in solitary confinement could retain their sanity, and I assume detention also has bad effects. Releasing these people who show up unregistered and unannounced in a country struggling to retain a measure of livability is simply suicidal. With seven billion population there are plenty more [too many more] where they came from. If there is no voluntary population reduction, Mother Nature will have to do the job

Thomas Liddle
Thomas Liddle6 years ago

Thank you Ray, for being a reasonable and respectful foil in this discussion.

My point is that no one is benefitting. Social science states, as I said, that detention centers are bound to be hotbeds of abuse. The solicitors and courts, overburdened already, don't benefit. The point is that society in general suffers from it; violence begets violence. The example Gillian offered, was most likely a child soldier. By 15 he'd probably had a gun in his hands for close to five years, he could be something of a child sergeant. Child soldiers are often successfully rehabilitated, but it's tough. In a more involved asylum program, which helps newcomers adjust, this boy would have been less likely to commit these crimes as he'd be under stricter supervision. Keep in mind also, that likely every crime this child committed, he'd been subjected to; these are learned behaviours. This is one of the dangers of offering asylum to refugees. If you keep them busy, in programs learning english and job skills, it is easy to monitor them. To truly offer asylum, you need to help people assimilate. Their current model makes assimilation unlikely, and scenarios you describe more likely. If your refugees serve a mandatory detention term of one year, which apparently Australia has, in abusive facilities, which most are, who's to blame if your refugees go criminal? They're kicking beat dogs then wondering if it'll make them mean imo.

Virginia B.
Virginia B6 years ago

This article hasn't "sunk in", because it's not clear to me what is going on in Australia. Does EVERYONE, who applies for Australian citizenship have to live in a detention camp, or does it only apply to citizens from certain countries? Do these camps only apply to those seeking political asylum? I just can't imagine requiring everyone who wants to move to Australia and become a citizen having to live "behind bars". Is this true? I've never heard of such a thing!

Mariacelia. H.

This is why I am agains t descrimination We all have to go somewhere in this earth for one thing or another,wether in bussiness deals or other .If you loss your job and you are in another country at that time, where can you go to get a job ,what can you have nothing to feed your family or yourself. When there is a terrible storm and other unwaited or onwanted situation everyone should stand by to help. People think that they are here by them selvves only to find out one day that is not like that.This people who have children that need jobs to support them that realy care for the better of a family to bring ggood cityzens capeoable to become someone who can provied as a doctor or other carrer that will help his or her family and contribute to pay taxes and communities this people decerve to be help and recognize that when you do good to another is for the benefit of making life better for you and others.I believe that people who do not want or accept people who want to help by working dicently to help their family and contribute to paying taxes so schools and other needs be met is not not thinking about serving the nation and the future it can give to others.We are not here to stop the progress for us and tothers we are here on this earth to united and progress for everyone.That is why so much wars and lost millions in wars.and in our lives.Not accepting others is not accepting a better future for you and me.Maria Celia Hernandez

Bruce S.
Bruce S6 years ago

It doesn't seem to be stopping these "immigrants" from coming to Australia. Every country has a right to determine how many, if any, people they want to allow into THEIR country. Irrespective of who or what the country is made of, or they immigrant history.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

They treat immigrants like criminals. ..There was a time when unless you had a criminal record you couldnt go there. Anyway that place is mostly populated by illegal immigrants who owe the first people's there a hell of a lot of rent! And I bet that all the detainees are all Asian or brown, but that's Australia for you!
I don't really mean that, australians are warm generous cheerful and forgiving, it's just a shame that there's only about 200,000 of them and they all live on reservations and the outback.