Detention centres: lethal mental illness factories

Refugee rights rally, July 9, Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

On August 23, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) reported that a 30-year-old man found unconscious in the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia had died.

After his collapse on August 21, the man was taken to Derby hospital, 40 kilometres away. That night, he was transferred to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, more than 2000km south of Derby. He died the next day.

DIAC would not tell Green Left Weekly the man’s name, but said it didn’t believe there were suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. A Coronial inquiry
will be held.

Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson, said on August 23: “This man’s death raises yet more questions about remote detention centres.

“It seems highly likely that if this man had been living in the community, the medical services to treat any medical condition and the emergency services needed to save his life may have been available for him. We want to see a complete medical audit of all the detention centres.”

Under the former Howard Coalition government, immigration detention services were outsourced to GSL (Australia) Pty Ltd. GSL subcontracted medical services to International Medical Health Services (IHMS).

Numerous reports exposed the handballing of responsibility under this arrangement. Curtin, Woomera and Baxter detention centres were shut down in an aura of shame. (The federal Labor government re-opened Curtin in June.)

Despite its promises to end outsourcing of immigration detention services, the Rudd Labor government simply changed the service provider to SERCO, and contracted directly with IHMS to provide general and mental health care.

GLW was unable to find an IHMS webpage, or any description of its services. When asked about healthcare arrangements at Curtin, and specifically whether there was a resident doctor, the DIAC spokesperson simply told GLW: “Curtin immigration detention centre (IDC) provides mental health support teams and medical staff.”

There is reason to be concerned that this man’s death was a tragedy waiting to happen. Other refugees in detention have told GLW of another man, also in his 30s, with a serious health condition that was very poorly managed. He was detained in the Christmas Island detention centre. Without the pressure exerted by the Australian Human Rights Commission and a lawyer, his life would have been at risk as Christmas Island did not have appropriate health care resources.

Speaking anonymously for fear of intimidation, detainees have told other stories reflecting poorly on health service provision detention.

They said their symptoms are often not taken seriously, doctors sometimes refused to give their names, and that doctors are occasionally abused by other detention centre staff if they order tests or recommend higher levels of care.

The crowded, stressful and unhealthy living conditions in these centres hav also been reported.

The Australian National Audit Office lists as a potential audit DIAC’s management of immigration detention arrangements, including its monitoring of services.

But GLW has reported before that the federal government was unable to provide complete health records in the case of the men accused of rioting on Christmas Island. Many health professionals are also concerned about the adequacy of health records. An audit relying on inadequate records may not show the true state of affairs.

Immigration detention is a system driven by the politics of fear, not humanitarian concerns. DIAC lists it under “border protection”, with scant mention of Australia’s legal and ethical obligations towards asylum seekers.

DIAC and SERCO appear intent on keeping visitors, and scrutiny, out of the detention centres

They recently denied access to regular visitors at Villawood detention centre, without providing a reason.

Detainees have reported not being allowed out to pray or to play. The unwritten policy is to prevent contact between asylum seekers and supporters.

Asylum seekers have complex healthcare needs beyond the scope of remote detention facilities. The only way to protect the right to health of asylum seekers is by housing them within the community.

It is time to apply the lessons learnt under former Coalition prime minister John Howard: close down these lethal mental illness factories.