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Suicide and self-harm in the immigration detention network

Suicide Mental health Well-being Human rights Detention of persons Australia

Key findings

Australia's immigration detention network has been subject to numerous reviews in recent years. This was due to the unprecedented strain on the network arising from increased Irregular Maritime Arrivals and the subsequent unrest and increase in suicide and self-harm incidents in 2010 and 2011. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (the department) and its service providers have undertaken, and are continuing to undertake, significant work to address the problems that these reviews have highlighted.

We recognise that this investigation started during a particularly difficult period due to the immigration detention policies in place and the significant increase in Irregular Maritime Arrivals.The large numbers of people seeking asylum also led to significant delays in processing of claims and in subsequent merits and judicial reviews sought by individuals. In 2010, the Australian Government suspended processing of asylum claims by people from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan for three and six months respectively. In 2011, the Malaysia Solution was announced by the Australian Government and subsequently invalidated by the High Court. There w as a large number of people in detention and many remained detained for long periods while a waiting finalisation of their asylum claims and substantive visas to be granted.

During this period, the department and its service providers were required to manage day-to-day operations under significant strain, while simultaneously responding to changes in Australian Government policy, increase the available infrastructure and recruit and train large numbers of staff. We recognise that establishing appropriate processes and functions to support detention operations in these circumstances was difficult.

The department necessarily had a strong focus on day-to-day logistics and the operational challenges that it was dealing with. In our view however, under this pressure, the department may not have fully appreciated some of the lessons gained from the experience of self-harm in immigration detention in the early 2000s. Issues around infrastructure and service provision – such as the adverse impact of overcrowded and/or remote facilities , and limited meaningful activities on the mental health of those in immigration detention facilities – were not fully addressed . In saying this, we also acknowledge that the department was obliged to respond within the constraints imposed by the law, the Australian Government's immigration policies, and capital funding decisions relating to infrastructure.

We note and welcome the considerable efforts that the department has made over the last 18 months to address many of the issues that were apparent in the early part of this investigation. As a result of multiple internal and external reviews, the relevant policies and procedures have been reviewed, realigned and more strongly implemented. Important developments include the efforts to strengthen the Psychological Support Program and the new Programs and Activities Framework.

Overall, we believe the department is now in a stronger position in terms of its capacity to manage the immigration detention network and associated risks and issues. However, this investigation has found scope for further improvement, and also identified lessons that can be learned from challenges of the recent past.


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