Experts accuse government over child self-harm in detention

August 15, 2014
A child in the Darwin Airport Lodge in 2013. Photo:

An inhumane policy that damages some to deter others. Detention centres that cause psychiatric disorders, self-harm and suicide. Arbitrary. Unjust. Cynical.

This is how an open letter, named "J'accuse", signed by more than 220 psychiatrists, human rights lawyers, priests, health professionals and other experts describes Australia’s refugee policy.

The letter, which can be read via GetUp!, has accused the government of a raft of appalling actions that it “wilfully and deliberately” carries out against asylum seekers and refugees.

The letter follows an ongoing inquiry into the treatment of children in detention by the Human Rights Commission, which recently heard that the immigration department had tried to suppress statistics on the high rates of self-harm among children in detention.

Signatories to the letter believe the government is “contravening children protection policy and children’s rights, by continuing to detain children as a first resort when such detention should be a matter of last resort ... and by detaining children and unaccompanied minors offshore in isolated detention facilities, exposing them to violence, trauma and to poor medical and psycho-social care, with no access to independent monitoring”.

The scale of trauma has been revealed by the Human Rights Commission’s latest inquiry. Commission president Gillian Triggs visited children in the Christmas Island detention centre and said most of the 174 children there were sick, depressed and regressing.

Triggs told ABC Radio: “There is no eye contact with some of them ... A lot of the younger babies are not crawling or doing the things they should be doing at their age group simply because of the conditions”.

Most of those held on Christmas Island are people the Coalition government insists will never be settled in Australia. Triggs said they were in a “legal twilight zone” and the stress on the parents was inevitably causing trauma for the children.

There had been 128 reported cases of self-harm in the 15 months to March 31 at the Christmas Island detention centre.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter Young told Triggs’ inquiry that as the head of the International Medical and Health Services he had reported to the department that “a large number of children have significant distress”.

“The department has been very negative towards the results,” he said. “They are concerned about what the figures are showing.

“They have asked us to withdraw figures from the reporting.”

The number of casualties to this cruel system continues to rise. A Pakistani teen reportedly tried to kill himself rather than be returned to Nauru on August 12. He had spent less than a month on Nauru before being brought back to Australia to be treated for kidney stones in January. He was sent back in February, then returned and hospitalised in Brisbane again in June.

Sydney-based advocates said the 16-year-old had “severely slashed his arms after being told that he was to be sent back to Nauru.

“It is an extreme statement that the conditions on Nauru are so bad that a 16-year-old boy is driven to so seriously self-harm rather than be sent back there,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition. He said the treatment of the boy was evidence of institutional child abuse.

The evidence being presented to the Human Rights Commission — of systematic mistreatment, inadequate facilities and care, and active suppression of statistics by the department — show the government is not about to back down from the torture and harm of children.

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