Australia’s immigration system and its detainees were under considerable strain, documents showed yesterday, with self-harm reports surging 12-fold as waiting times stretched to almost a year.
Compiled for a government committee examining Australia’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers arriving by boat, the official documents offered a rare insight into the troubled centers.
There were 6,403 people in immigration detention as at June 30 this year, with the main facility on remote Christmas Island housing 759 — almost double its operational capacity.
The detainees were predominantly young men, more than half of whom came from Afghanistan or Iran, although the report showed the number of children rising to 964 in the past year.
The riot-hit Christmas Island center has been overflowing since mid-2009, with its surging population accompanied by a spike in incident reports to 1,176 in the three months to June 30, from 83 a year earlier.
There were 104 disturbances in the period, nine classed as “major” and 35 people on protracted hunger strikes, with 83 self-harm attempts — 27 of them serious.
Sydney’s Villawood center, also rocked by riots, suicides and protests, was in a similar state, with 451 incident reports in the three months to June 30 from 189 a year earlier, dominated by self-harm, unrest and aggression.
Across the entire detention network self-harm threats and acts surged from 90 in 2009-2010 to 1,132 in 2010-2011, 386 of which were actual attempts.
In the past year there had been six deaths, 1,320 hunger strikes, 2,473 hospitalizations and 93 psychiatric admissions, according to the 600-page report.
Australian Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Andrew Metcalfe said that the department was “acutely aware” that the system was under pressure, and took the unprecedented step of calling for the government to look at alternatives to mandatory detention.
“We need to discuss asylum needs and focus on trends and the relative success rates for various cohorts,” Metcalfe told the committee.
“Can we manage different cohorts, with different success rates or security and risk features, in different ways?” he asked.
The average detention period has extended from 103 days in the first half of 2009 to 316 days in the six months to June 30 this year. It is longest — an average of 413 days — for asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.
Though they arrive in relatively low numbers by global standards refugees are a thorny political issue in Australia, and a record influx last year of almost 7,000 boat people has stretched facilities.