Is Serco really able to handle Australia’s asylum seeker trauma?

Thankfully and finally, Australia’s Ombudsmen will be investigating the high rate of self harm in immigration detention and the role, responsibility and actions of British multinational Serco.

But, according to this report in today’s Australian by Paige Taylor, the contractor has little understanding of the conditions under which refugees find themselves (and where the government places them in often extended mandatory detention):

The security firm that is running immigration detention centres has warned that asylum-seekers are creating a “self-harm culture” to manipulate guards and use as a bargaining tool, according to a company memo obtained by The Australian.

Another Serco document, for the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, shows incidents of self-harm are occurring daily despite efforts to ease tensions by reducing the number of detainees from more than 1800 in March to 611.

The revelations coincide with a decision to be announced today by commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher to launch an investigation into suicide and self-harm in immigration detention facilities. Mr Asher said a “significant issue of concern” relating to the mental health and wellbeing of detainees had arisen during visits by his staff to the Curtin, Leonora and Christmas Island facilities.

More than 1100 incidents of threatened or actual self-harm were reported in the immigration detention centres in 2010-11.

The Serco memo to its Christmas Island guards, dated May 31, tells them to be alert for abnormal behaviour. “Clients (detainees) are creating a self-harm culture, using self-harm as their bargaining tool,” the memo says.

Monash University psychiatry professor Louise Newman, who chairs a committee advising the Immigration Department on health and safety aspects of detention, said Serco’s memo indicated a lack of understanding about the nature and levels of mental distress in detention centres.

“Serco has obviously decided that these are politically motivated protests and they are not acknowledging that all these people are highly distressed,” she said.

“The truth of the matter is not (that) all of these protesters at the moment are mentally ill but they are at the end of their capacity to manage the situation.”

Professor Newman said it was not constructive to label self-harm as bad behaviour.

A spokesman for the Immigration Department, who also responded for Serco, said self-harm did not have any effect on a detainee’s visa claim. He would not comment on the memo.

The Ombudsman’s findings are expected by the end of the year.