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2011 Media Release: Self-harm and suicides in immigration detention are major concerns

Asylum Asylum Seekers and Refugees

The apparent suicides of three men at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre last year and high rates of self-harm should sound urgent alarm bells about the impacts of Australia’s immigration detention system, the Australian Human Rights Commission said today.

Releasing the Commission’s report of its visit to the detention facilities at Villawood, Commission President Catherine Branson QC said the uncertainty caused by indefinite detention and delays in refugee processing and security assessments were triggering serious mental health issues among the 400 people detained in the facilities when the Commission visited.

“What we saw at Villawood was the result of the system of mandatory and indefinite detention, where people can see no end in sight because there is no set time limit on the period a person can be held in detention,” Ms Branson said.

“Sixty per cent of those in detention when we visited Villawood had been detained for longer than six months, and forty five per cent had been detained for more than a year.

“We saw people scarred from self-harming. We heard others talk of sleepless nights, days of depression and frequent thoughts of suicide,” Ms Branson said.

“The Commission has been deeply concerned for some time about the detrimental impacts of prolonged and indefinite detention on people’s mental health and wellbeing, but these concerns have escalated over the past 12 months as thousands of people are being detained for long periods.”

As of 6 May there were 6715 people in immigration detention across Australia and more than half of those people had been in detention for longer than six months.

“There have been six deaths in immigration detention facilities over the last nine months, including the apparent suicides of three men in three months at the Villawood detention centre,” she said.

“Staff at the Villawood detention facilities should be acknowledged for their efforts to provide appropriate services and conditions, but the mental health impacts of prolonged detention cannot be overcome by these efforts alone.”

Ms Branson said Australia’s system of mandatory and indefinite immigration detention was a key concern raised by the international community during the recent United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Australia’s human rights record.

“In 2008 the Australian Government committed to a regime where immigration detention would be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time. People were meant to reside in the community unless they posed an unacceptable risk. It is time for the Government to implement those reforms, and to end the current system of mandatory and indefinite detention.

“I urge the Government to make greater use of community-based alternatives that are cheaper, more effective and more humane, such as the use of bridging visas or Community Detention.”

The report will be available from 9.00am Thursday, 26 May at:

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Media contact: Louise McDermott (02) 9284 9851 or 0419 258 597