Suicide and self-harm in Immigration Detention
Photo – AAP, Mick Tsikas
The Commonwealth Ombudsman, Colin Neave, recently released his team’s May 2013 report on ‘Suicide and Self-harm in the Immigration Detention Network’. The 165 page report opens up with, “This report contains information that some readers may find confronting or disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.”
Under the Ombudsman Act 1976 (Cth), the Commonwealth Ombudsman investigates the administrative actions of Australian Government agencies and officers.
The Ombudsman found in his report that subsequent the greater numbers of Asylum Seekers reaching Australia’s shore in recent years that despite various attributed improvements there still needs more to be done. “Overall, we believe the department (of Immigration and Citizenship) is not in a stronger position in terms of its capacity to manage the immigration detention network and associated risks and issues.”
The report noted, “There is a strong correlation between the rise in the average time in detention and the increase in self-harming behaviour during 2011.”
“Australian and international evidence supports the conclusion that immigration detention in a closed environment for a period of longer than six months has a significant, negative impact on a detainee’s mental health. The data shows that a steady increase in the average length of detention, as well as the rapid rise in the numbers of people in detention, was a precursor to the peak in the rate of self-harm in 2011.”
The report noted that between July 2010 to late April 2013 there were 11 deaths in immigration detention.
The investigation concluded many factors contributing to the self-harming by detainees and which include the personal experiences which many of the detainees had fled from, for instance torture. The factors also included widespread fears for the wellbeing of family and dependents left behind. Factors included social isolation and loneliness. Closed detention environments gave rise to disempowerment, limited privacy and overcrowding. The long delays in ‘processing’ refugee claims were major factors.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) has noted that they are nearing a complete rollout of adequate psychological support programs and of a culture that will accentuate the prevention of self-harm among detainees. But when taking into consideration the reports this year alone have come out of Christmas Island, Curtin Detention Centre, Northern Immigration Detention Centre, Darwin Airport Lodge, Manus Island and Nauru these claims of rollout and the imputation of wellbeing are ludicrously way off the mark.
The report stated, “We believe the department needs to further consider the data and governance arrangements that it needs to effectively manage the risk of suicide and self-harm. The department needs to assure itself that the service providers are delivering services consistent with the contract, including providing appropriate clinical response to suicide and self-harming behaviours. “
“In our view, the department could have been more responsive to environment intelligence about the increased risk and incidence of self-harm in the immigration detention network during 2010 and 2011, such as the concerns raised by stakeholders, including this office, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Detention Health Advisory Group, relating to the operational challenges and escalating self-harm.”
In July 2011, the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman announced an own motion to investigate and “examine the incidence and nature of suicide and self-harm in the immigration detention network” and to “identify the factors contributing to suicide and self-harm.”
As at 6 February 2013, there were 24 operational immigration detention facilities including Alternative Places of Detention (APOD) “with a capacity expanded to accommodate some 7329 detainees, and a contingency capacity of 9357.”
“This investigation commenced in July 2011 in response to the deteriorating psychological health of detainees we had observed particularly on Christmas Island, and against a backdrop of several deaths and escalating self-harm in immigration detention. As the Joint Select Committee later observed in its March 2012 report, ‘An alarming number of detainees have resorted to self-harming. The Committee is not able to accurately estimate the current number or frequency of self-harm incidents, however it appears to be a regular occurrence.”
DIAC claimed it was not able to accurately estimate the incidence of self-harm because adequate data systems were not in place. In May 2012 it started producing its Monthly Self-Harm Snapshot.
The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman during the course of their investigation sought data from DIAC and Serco on the incidence of self-harm in closed detentions. But the report has cast doubt on the integrity of their data.
“On 15 March 2013, the department provided us with a dataset that it considered to represent an accurate picture of self-harm incidents reported to the department by Serco. While we continue to have concerns about the categorisation of incidents as reported by Serco to the department, we accept that this dataset demonstrates the general trend of self-harm incidents in immigration detention.”
“This office is concerned that self-harm by children in immigration detention facilities is an ongoing issue, notwithstanding the decrease in self-harm incidents since the peak in August 2011.”
“Prior to May 2012, reports produced by the department and Serco did not routinely and separately monitor self-harm by children. However, in October 2011 the department provided data to Parliament that demonstrated that self-harm involving children was at a concerning level, representing almost 14 per cent of self-harm incidents between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2011.”
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) published an annual report on Asylum Seekers, the demographics and the trends. The UNHCR’s 2011 statistical report noted a sharp increase in Asylum Seeker applications in the 44 industrialised countries. There were estimated 441,300 claims in 2011, that is 20 per cent more than the 368,000 applications in 2010, and the highest since 2003.
Australia received 11,510 applications which was equivalent to three per cent of the applications among the industrialised countries.
The Asia Pacific regions has at this time more than 3.6 million refugees, around 24 per cent of the world’s total refugee population. In 2011, just 22 countries resettled 79,800 refugees and Australia ranked three in admitting 9,200 refugees. The United States resettled 51,500 and Canada resettled 12,900.
The Ombudsman’s report reinforces only what most know, that studies “have indicated that people who have fled violence and disruption in their countries of origin, and who may have been subject to torture and trauma, often exhibit pre-existing mental health conditions or are vulnerable to developing a post traumatic condition.”
“People detained in an immigration detention facility in recent years may have been exposed to, or involved in, suicidal or self-harm behaviours. This is a particularly difficult issue, as detainees seeking to maintain their own stability are unable to physically dissociate themselves from their environment, and often cannot choose to associate with people with more positive modes of thinking and behaviours.”
“As explored elsewhere in this report, there is a high level of mental and psychological illness among detainees, particularly those detained for extended periods. This creates an environment where many detainees are surrounded by people in the same situation, also experiencing mental illness, frustration or distress.”
“Drawing on our discussions with detainees, we believe there may be a contagion effect that magnifies dysfunctional thinking in these circumstances. Impulsive and dysfunctional methods for problem solving and drawing attention to the perceived problems may include the behaviours seen in riots and disturbance.”
The report pointed to the obvious when suggesting that the witnessing of others self-harming can heighten the risk of “imitative behaviour or contagion and lead to broader self-harm among the detention population. We have been advised that this phenomenon, known as contagion effect, has its origins in social learning theory. The basic premise of this theory is that verbal transfer of information and observation of other people ‘acts make up the basis for the acquisition of all types of human behaviour.’ Witnessing others self-harm or suicide, for example, following the receipt of bad news which is presented as a solution or ‘way out’, may serve to model for others who have similar problems.”
The report noted that in periods where the average time of being held in detention so to were there declines in recorded incidents of self-harm.
Previous The Stringer articles:
May 20th 2013 by Dr Binoy Kampmark
May 7th 2013 by Gerry Georgatos
30th March 2013 by The Stringer
21st February 2013 by The Stringer
19th February 2013 by The Stringer
5th February 2013 by Gerry Georgatos