Hundreds of asylum-seekers have attempted or threatened to harm themselves after being placed in custody under Australia's policy of mandatory detention for illegal arrivals, immigration officials acknowledged yesterday.
Of the 20,733 people who have passed through Australian immigration detention between 2002 and this year, there were 878 instances of asylum-seekers attempting or threatening to harm themselves, officials said.
Fourteen people died while in immigration detention, including one suicide.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone played down the figures, which were obtained by a Sydney academic under Freedom of Information legislation, saying they had been taken out of context.
"In many cases they will be the same person, repeating threats that may never be carried out that also includes very, very minor self-harm, and against a detainee population over that period of some 20,000 I think puts it in a bit more perspective," she said.
But Denise Leith, who requested the statistics, said they indicated the grave mental health issues arising from immigration detention.
Self-harm was only "the tip of the iceberg" and did not include cases of depression or emotional disturbance, she said.
Health officials have long warned that asylum-seekers are at risk of deteriorating mental health while in the camps, a stance highlighted by the cases of several children who have stopped talking, eating and playing while in custody.
"It's worrying but not surprising," said Jon Jureidini, the head of psychological medicine at Adelaide's Women's and Children's Hospital, who has assessed some of the detainees.
"After people have been in detention for extended periods of time, almost all people that I've come across have harmed themselves in some way," he told ABC radio.
The policy of holding asylum-seekers in detention until their claims can be assessed has resulted in many detainees spending years behind bars in often remote centers.
Earlier this year the government relaxed its detention laws to release children and long-term detainees.
The latest figures follow immigration department bungles which have seen citizens and residents wrongly deported or locked up.