Fears for immigration detainees as new figures reveal hundreds of self-harm incidents in 2020

Protesters gather to support asylum seekers detained at Brisbane's Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in June.

There are concerns that the stress of being trapped inside immigration detention centers during the coronavirus crisis may contribute to an increase in the number of self-harm incidents among detainees.

Data obtained by SBS News reveals that incidents of self-harm in many detention facilities were higher in the first seven months of 2020 than the annual average between 2016 and 2019.

For example, between 2016 and 2019, there were an average of 71.5 incidents of self-harm within the Melbourne Transit Migration Center (MITA) each year.

But in the first seven months of 2020, there were already 99 incidents of self-harm within MITA.

Medical experts, advocates for asylum seekers and immigration lawyers have argued that this trend is a result of the increased mental health pressures detainees face during the pandemic.

They have sounded the alarm about the lack of mental health resources in detention facilities and the failure to respond to the increasing isolation of detainees linked to COVID restrictions.

Protesters take part in the “Free Refugees” march at the Melbourne Transit Migrant Center.

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Dr. Kim Jenkins, a psychiatrist and chair of the RANZCP Asylum Seekers Committee and the Refugee Mental Health Network Committee, said the pandemic has made detainees more vulnerable to mental disorder.

“The situation is worse for the people in detention because they are more isolated and more desperate,” she told SBS News.

“You have a group of people who are incredibly vulnerable to mental health problems and already have poorer mental health than the general population.”

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The mental health challenges of the pandemic have been well documented in the general community, including through increased calls to helpline services.

But figures released under freedom of information laws show the pressure these challenges place on detained migrants.

The Brisbane ITA facility recorded 61 self-harm incidents in the first seven months of 2020, compared to an average of 55 self-harm incidents per year between 2016 and 2019.

Asylum seekers look inside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane.

Asylum seekers look inside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane.

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The Perth Immigration Detention Center recorded 80 incidents of self-harm in July – this number is 19 higher than the previous year and compares to an annual average of 52.5 between 2016 and 2019.

The Villawood Detention Center in Sydney recorded an average of 220 incidents of self-harm each year between 2016 and 2019. In the first seven months of 2020, it recorded 133 incidents of self-harm.

Immigration attorney Karina Ford – who represents the Peluila Tamil family currently detained on Christmas Island – said the statistics are evidence of the growing anxiety and isolation detainees are experiencing during the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has seen an increase in self-harm,” she told SBS News.

“I have never seen in my 20 years of practice the pressure that COVID has put detainees under pain.”

She added that several factors have increased the social isolation of detainees during the pandemic, including suspending visits to family and friends to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

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It is understood that some group activities have also been suspended in immigration facilities in response to social distancing requirements.

Border Forces Commissioner Michael Outram last month told the COVID committee that “alternative means and mechanisms” had been put in place to allow detainees to communicate with family, friends and representatives.

A spokesperson for the Australian Border Force said in a statement that all those held in immigration detention centers also have appropriate access to health and mental care, similar to that available in the Australian community.

The spokesman said, “There is a range of health services (available) including psychiatry services, psychology and counseling.”

Human rights advocates have called for more immigration detainees to be placed in community detention due to the coronavirus crisis.

Human rights advocates have called for more immigration detainees to be placed in community detention due to the coronavirus crisis.

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But Jana Favero, Advocacy and Campaigns Director at the Asylum Seekers Resource Center, said she was concerned that the mental health needs of detainees were not being adequately met.

“It compounds self-isolation – a complex sense of loneliness – and a combined detachment from the outside world after years and years of detention,” she told SBS News.

“The mental health services provided to detained persons are not sufficient as we see from the deterioration of mental health.”

Detention facilities have become the center of ongoing controversy and protests during the pandemic, amid concerns that overcrowding will spread the virus like wildfire in cramped conditions.

Outram defended the government’s response in immigration facilities, saying that allowing no coronavirus cases in the detention network was a “hard effort”.

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He has stated that allegations that immigration detention facilities, including alternative places of detention (APODs), lack adequate health and safety measures are false.

Extensive plans have also been developed and are underway to manage any potential cases of COVID-19 among detainees or staff, according to the commissioner.

‘People are deeply sad’

Pressure is mounting on the immigration detention network as the government is currently unable to return detainees to their countries of origin.

In response to this challenge, authorities have begun transferring detained migrants to facilities on Christmas Island to relieve pressure on mainland centers.

Immigration attorney Sanmati Verma said this only increased detainees’ anxiety, calling on the government to instead consider reducing the numbers of detainees through community options.

“People are so upset not to see their family and friends, the numbers are just increasing, and the prisoner transfers are continuing,” she told SBS News.

“All this is a catastrophic environment that the current government is headed and is trying to manage quickly.”

No detainees have been released as part of the Australian Border Forces’ COVID response, according to evidence heard in the COVID Commission.

Between 2016 and 2019, there were an average of 631 incidents of self-harm each year inside immigration facilities in Australia.

Already in 2020 there were a total of 423 incidents of self-harm.

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