On January 25, newly announced Australian of the Year and youth mental health expert Patrick McGorry said refugee detention centres were "factories for producing mental illness".
McGorry is the head of the Orygen Research Centre and Headspace, a youth mental illness network. He worked with refugees for more than 20 years and said many refugees had experienced trauma and torture before fleeing to seek refuge in a safe country. He said many already had mental health problems.
"And what we have been doing here until very recently, and even now ... is actually adding to those mental health problems", he said. "It's an absolute disaster that we must not repeat."
Claims need to be processed as fast as possible, he said, and refugees need to be able to live in the community while they are waiting. This is also a key demand of the refugee rights movement.
Detention is an assault on both mental health and human rights.
Unfortunately, a day later, McGorry was forced to "clarify" his comments. He said criticism was not directed at the current government — even though it maintains a mandatory detention policy — but at previous government policies.
"I have treated a lot of very traumatised people, including many who were put through the remote detention centre policy of earlier governments", he said.
"I certainly wasn't critical of the present government's policies."
The previous Coalition government locked refugees up in remote desert locations in appalling conditions, such as Woomera and Baxter. When protests against the detention centres grew, previous prime minister John Howard introduced the "Pacific Solution", in which refugees were detained instead on remote Pacific islands.
It prevented the public from seeing conditions behind the razor wire and made it more difficult for refugee rights activists to campaign for the closure of the centres.
The Labor government of Kevin Rudd has continued this appalling practice: all refugees trying to reach Australia by boat are taken to Christmas Island, 2600 kilometres north-west of the Australian coast.
Recently, the prison-like centre has reached capacity, as refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries continue to arrive.
Extra accommodation has been brought in, including furnished shipping containers.
More than 1600 people are crammed into a centre that was originally built for 400. The immigration department says 200 people, mostly families, were now living in tents.
The day after McGorry first attacked mandatory detention, the head of Rudd's bill of rights consultation committee, Frank Brennan, slammed Christmas Island and said it was at "breaking point".
Brennan said: "If people are now being held in tents in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that becomes a situation which makes Baxter start to look appropriate", reported the Australian on January 27.
"Even at Woomera it never got to the stage of people being kept in tents."
Rudd did not comment on McGorry's remarks. But deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on January 27: "The government will continue to have a mandatory detention policy."
Immigration minister Chris Evans said the government had "no concerns about mental health".
"I think most people who visit (Christmas) Island accept people are being treated appropriately", he said on January 27.