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High Suicide Rate at Australian Detention Centers Worries Officials

Detainees hold a protest sign atop a building at Villawood detention centre in Sydney, April 21, 2011.
Detainees hold a protest sign atop a building at Villawood detention centre in Sydney, April 21, 2011.
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Phil Mercer

Australia's ombudsman has launched an inquiry into sharply rising rates of suicide and attempts at self-inflicted harm in the country's overcrowded immigration detention centers.

According to newly released government figures, an average of three threatened or actual attempts at self-inflicted harm occur in Australia’s detention centers each day.  More than 1,100 threatened or actual incidents were registered in the past year. In just one week earlier this month, there were 50 such cases.

There have been cases where inmates have sewn their lips together, while others have jumped from buildings or gone on hunger strikes.

Since the end of last year, five suicides have been recorded, including that of a Fijian man who leapt to his death from a roof at the Villawood detention center in Sydney.

What's behind increase

Psychiatrists believe there has been a sharp increase in levels of frustration, anxiety and alienation among detainees. The worst affected are young men, who are locked away while their claims for asylum are processed and also while lengthy appeals processes are worked through if original requests are denied.

Overcrowding is another catalyst for unrest and discontentment. The government has been forced to open new detention facilities at two old military bases to relieve overcrowding at the offshore processing center on Christmas Island.

An investigation by Australia’s national ombudsman, Allan Asher, will look at the demographics of detainees, their access to medical advice and efforts to prevent inmates from harming themselves.

Asher says a recent visit to Australia’s offshore detention camp on Christmas Island was particularly disturbing.

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

The ombudsman does not have the power to order changes but aims to solve problems through negotiation and consultation.

Mental health

Refugee advocates say the mental health of more than 6,000 detainees in Australia’s network of detention centers it is a national emergency. They are calling for the vast majority of asylum seekers to be moved into community detention rather than held in prison-like camps.

Australia’s Immigration Department is to carry out its own investigation into mental health and suicide prevention.

A spokesman says detention center employees are trained to recognize the warning signs.

Australia automatically detains asylum seekers while their refugee claims are investigated. A steady flow of unauthorized boat arrivals in recent months has put great strain on the system.

This week Australia agreed to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 long-term refugees in a bid to deter human traffickers.

Canberra grants visas to about 13,000 refugees each year under various international treaties.

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