At least one in four refugees locked in indefinite detention on the basis of secret ASIO findings has attempted or threatened suicide, a new analysis has revealed.
Several of the 44 refugees have now been incarcerated more than five years without charge in Melbourne and Sydney, and none are allowed to know the detail of the secret assessments used to justify their detention.
The heavy psychological toll has led to extraordinary rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm, including one man repeatedly beating his head with a toilet door.
The 42 men and two women have been officially recognised as refugees and almost universally report a history of torture and trauma.
But their health has been compounded by what concerned lawyers have described as legal limbo similar to that in Guantanamo Bay – they are refused visas to live in Australia but cannot be sent home for fear of persecution.
Australia’s policy of indefinite detention of the refugees with adverse security findings was found by the United Nations last August to be in breach of more than 140 international laws and conventions, but a year later the government is yet to respond to the ruling.
The unprecedented picture of the group’s fragile mental state emerges from a Fairfax Media analysis of thousands of Commonwealth Ombudsman’s reports into individuals held in immigration detention for more than two years.
But the reports on the 44 refugees assessed by ASIO to be threats to national security are mixed among thousands about people in long-term detention and have not previously been drawn together.
Fairfax Media has compiled the relevant reports into a single database, a unique insight into the life of these 44 refugees at a time when official information about conditions in detention is tightly controlled.
The reports show at least two-thirds of the group have needed counselling or medication for depression, while more than half have suffered insomnia.
At least 11 have attempted or threatened suicide, with rates of self-harm far higher.
The refugees are not entitled to appeal against the ASIO findings in the courts and the government is yet to make a decision about extending a review by a former Federal Court judge examining the cases.
It is believed 26 of the men are held in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation facility in Broadmeadows, with the rest in Villawood, Sydney.
Most are believed to be Tamils who fled Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in 2009, with others from Burma, Iran and Kuwait.
The anonymous nature of the reports, the staggered frequency of when they are tabled in Parliament and the release of 10 other former detainees after ASIO changed its assessment, mean the analysis can only be indicative rather than conclusive.
One man is expected to be released from Villawood in coming days after four years and five months in detention, having been notified ASIO has changed its finding against him.
A disturbing cost to individuals is evident by linking the series of reports.
One 29-year-old man, identified by the Ombudsman only as “Mr XXX”, has now spent 1884 days in Australia’s immigration detention network since fleeing Sri Lanka during that country’s civil war.
He has been medicated for depression and suffered continuous severe headaches and ringing in his ears linked to anxiety about his long-term incarceration and uncertainty whether he will ever be released.
The Ombudsman reported: “He feels his brain and heart are dead. He stated that he does nothing here and finds it hard to pass the time.”
At least three countries have now refused Australia’s attempts to settle Mr XXX overseas and he remains at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney.
No country has accepted any members of group.
Another man, Mr X, who was bashed with a rifle butt and suffered brain damage before fleeing to Australia, has taken to shoving grass and orange pips in his ear.
A psychiatrist recommended Mr X be admitted to hospital for rehabilitation in March last year but the hospital declined, saying the constant presence of a security guard would make it impossible.
“The hospital reported that there is no purpose for rehabilitation if Mr X is to be returned to detention,” the Ombudsman reported.
Sydney University law professor Ben Saul, who took the case to the UN, said the government had detained refugees without charge or trial in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions.
“This is our Guantanamo, a legal black hole of indefinite detention that is beyond the rule of law [and] fairness,” Professor Saul said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed 44 refugees remain in detention with adverse security assessments and said: “Australia’s national security interests always take priority in such matters.”
The spokeswoman said the government had notified the UN it would respond soon and was continuing to seek a third country to settle the group.
She said all people in immigration detention received mental health care by qualified medical practitioners, including psychiatrists and psychologists, with specialised counselling for survivors of torture and trauma.
“Mental health policies for detention are developed and reviewed in consultation with the department’s expert health advisers, to ensure they remain appropriate for detainees,” she said in a statement.
“The department and the detention service provider also work closely to monitor and expand the range of programs and activities available to detainees, with a particular emphasis on activities which encourage self-agency and participation.”
The spokeswoman said it was long-standing policy that people with adverse security assessments remained in detention but declined to confirm where they were housed.
About the Ombudsman’s reports
The Migration Act requires the Ombudsman to assess the appropriateness of the immigration detention arrangements for each person detained for more than two years. A report is given to the Immigration Minister and a “de-identified version” tabled in Parliament.
The reports on refugees with adverse ASIO assessments all recommend “that the government give priority to finding a solution that reconciles the management of any security threat with its duty of care to immigration detainees, including considering alternative avenues for managing any security threat.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 24 August 2014.