Sat, Jul 30, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Australia to investigate asylum seeker suicides

SITUATION WORSENS:The Detention Health Advisory Group said that the problem of self-harm and suicide among male asylum seekers is becoming more serious

AFP, SYDNEY

Australia said yesterday it would probe the high number of suicides and self-harm incidents among asylum seekers in immigration detention centers, including at the strife-hit Christmas Island site.

The country’s chief Ombudsman Allan Asher said he was alarmed about the impact of long-term detention on mental health after more than 1,100 cases of threatened or actual self-harm were reported in the first half of the year.

“I was myself on Christmas Island at the end of June and there were 30 incidents in that week, and then across Australia in the first week of July, 50 incidents,” Asher told ABC television on Thursday.

“We think there is something seriously wrong that needs to be looked at,” Asher said.

Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat, but has softened its stance in recent years to allow more women and children into the community as their refugee claims are assessed.

The move has left centers, including the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, with a large population of males now separated from their families, said Louise Newman, chair of the Detention Health Advisory Group.

Newman said there have been five suicides in detention since September last year, adding that almost every night one young man somewhere in the system attempts to hang himself.

“We all know that things are probably much worse in there then they have been for some time,” Newman said. “We’ve seen virtually every night at the moment somewhere in the system is a near-miss suicide. We’ve had outbreaks of group self-harming behavior, people joining together to harm themselves.”

According to data obtained by ABC, the situation has become so serious at Christmas Island that staff have been told to carry knives at all times so they can cut down detainees who try to hang themselves.

Inmates are denied their own razors, the state broadcaster said, saying that men who need to shave have to request a razor and then hand it back once they have finished.

The investigation into suicide and self-harm will gather demographic data about those involved and the length of time they spent in detention and the potential roots of the behavior. The inquiry will also examine whether incidents of self-harm could trigger other incidents among inmates.

Newman said self-harming behavior could be “very contagious”.

“When you get a group of distressed people in a confined environment, things spread and escalate very rapidly,” she said.

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