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New Mothers on Suicide Watch at Christmas Island

Asylum Asylum Seekers and Refugees

The Australian Human Rights Commission holds grave concerns for the welfare of asylum seekers, particularly mothers and children on Christmas Island after visiting detainees for a second time as part of its National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014).

The inquiry team led by Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs and accompanied by internationally respected paediatrician Professor Elizabeth Elliott visited the Island to obtain objective evidence of the conditions there and to verify the numbers of people who had self-harmed or were on suicide watch.

“In the four months since we visited Christmas Island, the situation for asylum seekers has significantly deteriorated,” said Professor Triggs.

The inquiry team’s visit coincided with the first anniversary of the 19 July 2013 - the date after which, under Government policy, no asylum seeker arriving by boat can settle in Australia. All 1,102 asylum seekers currently in detention on Christmas Island – including 174 children - arrived after 19 July last year.

Commission staff arrived on Christmas Island on the 14th of July, at a time when there were 13 women on high-level risk monitoring with 10 of these women requiring 24 hour watch. Women on 24 hour watch are monitored by a guard who sits outside their room with the door open. Women are observed at all times, including when they breast feed and sleep.

The numbers of women on 24 hour watch constitute a spike in serious cases of self-harm or suicide attempts – a fact that the Commission has only been able to confirm by visiting Christmas Island and speaking with the asylum seekers and staff there.

Previously, the numbers of people on suicide watch was one or two per week, but tensions have been high in the Christmas Island detention camps since July 7th when mothers of babies called a meeting to ask immigration staff if they could be moved to mainland detention.

The mothers were concerned that there are no places for babies to learn to crawl or walk in the 3x3 metal containers where they are confined in the extreme heat. These rooms contain a bunk bed and a cot and this leaves only one square metre of space.

Professor Elliott was extremely concerned at the state of the children.

“Christmas Island is no place for infants and young children. Most were ill with chest or gut infections - reflecting the large number of families living in unacceptably cramped and high density accommodation intended for ‘temporary’ use.”

Data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection reveals that 128 children self-harmed in the period from January 2013 to March 31st 2014. In this same 15 month period, 89 adults self-harmed.

Professor Elliott said: “Of greatest concern was the high rate of distress - anxiety, depression and self-harm amongst otherwise healthy young mothers with young children… Many mothers are depressed after giving birth and suffering health problems related to childbirth and the unhygienic conditions in the camps. This maternal distress has the added impact of disrupting the mother-child bond and will potentially have lasting adverse effects on the mental health of their children”.

Construction Camp on Christmas Island has almost no open, clean or safe areas for babies to learn to crawl.

According to Professor Elliott: “The physical environment is totally unsuitable and children suffer from recurrent asthma and irritation of the eyes and skin is common, reflecting the dirty environment and raising questions about the causal effect of atmospheric phosphate dust from the local mine.

“Mothers are begging for eggs and fresh fruit and education for their children. In the words of one woman under constant guard, ‘I don’t want a visa; I just want somewhere safe and clean for my child.”   

Professor Triggs commented on a distinct deterioration in the children and their families since her previous visit.

“They are plagued by despair and helplessness at the seemingly endless period of detention. While I am encouraged that the Department intends to set up a school for children, for the past year, children have had no education or structured physical activity. Parents are asking for their children to be moved to the mainland where they will be safe and have access to medical facilities.”

Commission staff met many children suffering with nightmares or flashbacks; children who had developed bed-wetting or stuttering and had withdrawn to their rooms or refused to eat. Professor Elliot described the symptoms that she observed as being “consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Most of the asylum seekers on Christmas Island have now spent close to a year waiting for their removal to Nauru or Manus Island. Nearly all are yet to have their claim to refugee status assessed.

“To deny the right to claim refugee status for nearly a year”, said Professor Triggs “is to strip away all human dignity. These asylum seekers are trapped in a legal twilight zone.”

These conditions raise concerns that Australia risks serious violation of its fundamental obligations at international law to protect asylum seekers without discrimination and to consider their claims to refugee status expeditiously. As one unaccompanied teenager said, “we are like soccer balls, kicked from place to place”.

The Commission calls on the Government to consider moving all children and their families to mainland Australia where they can be treated with humanity and their claims to refugee status can be assessed according to law.