An ongoing theme at this site is the privatisation of detention centres in Australia.
Privatisation of detention centres and particularly the health services associated with the current model may have deepened the already alarming mental health plight of asylum seekers, psychiatrist and 2010 Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry has warned.
“ I believe the situation was much better managed when the Department of Immigration and Citizenship itself exercised direct control over detention centres in the 1990’s and also allowed mainstream mental health services to provide mental health care to the detainees including release into the community when necessary so that this became more feasible. In fact trying to provide humane mental health care to seriously mentally ill detainees within detention centres is like trying to treat malaria in a mosquito ridden swamp. Despite the best efforts of the DIAC and detention centre staff, the context is fundamentally hostile to effective care.“ Prof. McGorry told the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria yesterday.
“ Before the late 1990s detention centres were not surrounded by razor wire, run buy private prison operators for profit, or isolated in the desert or thousands of kilometers offshore. In the late 1990s, these obviously punitive elements were introduced as a deterrent. No other country has taken this step, which greatly increases the burden of mental ill health and limits the capacity to provide effective mental health care. The present government has made some attempts to humanize this policy, however punitive elements persist with serious consequences for the mental health of detainees.
The contracted international companies who now provide the detention centre services are private prison operators and naturally enough cannot in all fairness be expected to treat immigration detainees, who are innocent of any crime, in a qualitatively different to convicted prisoners.”
Detainees, he said, were usually people fleeing war zones or areas of crisis and may have been victims of torture. They may have experienced primary injury, their first psychological trauma, before deciding to seek refuge in Australia.
A second trauma, even if apparently minor, could trigger a relapse of mental illness and worsen it. This was the risk of secondary injury that asylum seekers faced when they were detained for long periods in poor conditions.
People were then at risk of developing persistent and severe mental disorders, from which they might never fully recover. This is the key driver of self-harm and suicide especially when combined with the perceived and actual helplessness and hopelessness of their predicament.
“Adolescents are known to be very sensitive to these extreme traumas, especially the young men who constitute the bulk of the detainees. ”
Prof. McGorry stressed that people who interact with detainees, such as healthcare workers, guards, immigration officials, lawyers and interpreters, could themselves be affected by the helplessness and frustration they witnessed and absorbed through their work.
During Prof. McGorry’s presentation for Access Youth Network at Dyason House, the Hon. Michael MacKellar, former Minister of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Fraser government, stated that it was a very difficult task to check the identities and backgrounds of asylum seekers, and that all stories cannot be trusted.
He went on to say that Australia has had a good record over many years of accepting refugees in accordance with our international obligations.
Professor McGorry acknowledged Australia’s positive history up until the 1990’s, but questioned the notion that many asylum seekers fabricated their stories, referring to his own personal experience with many hundreds over the past 20 years or so.
Prof. McGorry asked, “ Why are we taking such extreme political and administrative measures when we only get a few thousand people each year compared to other countries who attract many more and who manage the situation more humanely? ”
“Assessments of a highly contestable nature are made by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that it is ok for refugees to go back to countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka because they are now deemed safe. These assessments are able to impact at the individual case level in a quite inappropriate manner. A second yet related issue is that having been on the losing side in a bitter war (for many Sri Lankan Tamils) and hence at obvious risk on return is allowed to block the granting of a protection visa. This is the very reason they have fled. This raises again the spectre of political and diplomatic interference in decisions which must be made on an individual basis in relation to the UN convention”
“In good faith I would be very pleased to assist the government in reviewing the mental health needs of detainees in cooperation with the existing advisory processes.”
The event at which Prof. McGorry spoke was organised by Access, the youth network of the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria. Professor McGorry shared his thoughts with Access Youth Network after his speech at Dyason House.