Asylum seekers have swallowed insect repellent, bashed their heads on walls and doused their bodies with boiling water in a culture of self-harm in Australian detention centres that appears to have reached crisis point.
Incident logs from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection covering one year, obtained under freedom of information laws, paint a picture of depression, desperation and violence at Australia’s domestic and overseas detention camps and in the community.
They raise fresh questions over the human rights implications of Australia’s tough border protection regime, which has been condemned by the United Nations, and will fuel calls for children to be immediately released from detention.
The data shows that in the year to July 2015 there were 188 incidents of self-harm involving asylum seekers at Nauru, about one every two days. There were 55 such self-harm acts at Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
They included detainees swallowing poisons, stuffing tea bags down their throats and hanging by bed sheets or other makeshift nooses.
In one incident on Manus Island a detainee “inflicted 12 lacerations to his stomach with a razor blade”. In another, a man “swallowed a Christian cross pulled from his wallet”.
Another man was found attempting to damage his wrist “with a small ring of metal” and was restrained. He tried to break free, saying, “I want to die, let me die.”
At Nauru in October 2014 a detainee, apparently upset after meeting his lawyer, “wrapped himself in toilet paper and attempted to get hold of a lighter”. In another incident, a woman “poured boiling water over [her] lower limbs”.
Also at Nauru, a man “was seen to jump from a top bunk with [a] torn sheet around his neck”, while, separately, a detainee who swallowed anti-dandruff shampoo “was on the floor of the tent vomiting and … appeared to be unconscious”.
In May last year a man had “sewn a heart shape design into his hand using [a] needle and thread”.
The rate of self-harm is even higher in Australia’s onshore detention network, where there were 706 acts in 12 months – almost two incidents a day. They included asylum seekers living in the community or in community detention.
At Villawood in June a detainee drank half a litre of disinfectant and took heart medication.
Other detainees have swallowed washing powder, shampoo, stones, insect repellent, detergent, toilet cleaner and head lice treatment.
An asylum seeker living in the community in Western Australia last July “took 250 tablets of different medications” in an attempt to commit suicide.
Others have tried to injure themselves by bashing their heads against walls, mirrors, wardrobes and steel poles, or by choking themselves with plastic bags or scarves.
A handful of log entries appear to be wrongly categorised or updates on previous incidents. But the figures are likely to be conservative because many acts of self-harm or violence appear to be included in other incident categories.
The freedom of information requests, made by the University of Melbourne’s Law Students for Refugees in conjunction with Fairfax Media, did not include logs of threatened self-harm, minor assaults or voluntary starvation.
The documents suggest the rate of self-harm at Nauru – once every two days – is significantly higher than that reported to a Senate inquiry last year by Transfield Services, since renamed Broadspectrum.
The controversial company, which performs key functions at the offshore camps, reported 253 incidents of self-harm over 972 days between September 2012 and April 2015, or about one incident every four days.
As Fairfax Media revealed this week, the time asylum seekers spend in onshore detention has increased under the Turnbull government to a record high of 445 days, raising concern over the effect on detainees’ mental health.
An Immigration Department spokesman said all incidents of self-harm, no matter how significant, were reported and “any detainee who threatens to self-harm, or self-harms, receives immediate and appropriate medical care and support”.
He said the department supported the governments of Nauru and PNG through contractors who worked with detainees in welfare, health and medical roles. Detainees who threaten or commit self-harm “are immediately provided with both counselling and medical services”.
“The services provided in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea are broadly comparable with health services available within the Australian community,” he said.
Anguish at heart of detention regime
Plum-coloured scars criss-cross the torso of Mohammad Albederee, an Iraqi who cuts himself with a standard-issue razor and fears “I will die soon”.
Mr Albederee once reportedly cut open his stomach during a hunger strike to prove it was empty. Now advocates say the Manus Island asylum seeker wants to eat, but can’t keep anything down.
He claims he was injured by guards during an altercation and now suffers constant shoulder and kidney pain.
“I can’t do anything. I’m staying nine months in pain and … I don’t see anyone care about me,” he said in a video recording obtained by Fairfax Media.
“I feel very, very tired all the time. Pain my chest, pain my stomach, pain my kidney, pain my legs. Sometimes I can’t move my leg; sometimes I can’t leave my bed.
“I’m … very, very, very scared because I feel I will die soon.”
In November prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, QC, attempted to intervene in Mr Albederee’s case, saying the asylum seeker was at risk of death and must be brought to Australia for treatment. Authorities said he was receiving appropriate care and his life was not endangered.
South Australian refugee advocate Jeanie Walker, who is in daily contact with Mr Albederee, said: “All he wants is surgery on his shoulder and kidneys, so he’s out of pain.
“There’s nothing of him. He’s just skin, bone and scars. He’s jaundiced, his liver’s not working.
“His mental state is all over the place … now he sometimes hears voices and those voices are telling him to cut himself.”
A spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it had “strongly refuted” numerous claims advocates made about Mr Albederee.
Mr Albederee was “consenting to and receiving appropriate medical support and treatment”, at Manus Island, the spokesman said, adding he had received hospital treatment at Port Moresby in November and December and had been medically cleared to return to Manus.