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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: In Immigration Detention, Life Is Uncertainty

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Nov 23 2010 (IPS) - Mohsen Soltany Zand knows life inside Australia’s immigration detention system. Now an Australian citizen, Zand sought political asylum here after fleeing Iran in the late 1990s.

He was held by Australian authorities in several detention facilities between 1999 and 2003. “My experience was unbelievable. (I suffered) a lot of mental damage and many shocking things (happened). It was absolutely like hell,” he says.

The most difficult aspect of his detention was the lack of certainty regarding his fate. “You don’t know if you’re going to be deported, you don’t know what will happen in your future. You don’t know how long you have to be there, you don’t know anything,” Zand told IPS.

He remains in contact with a group of about 20 Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers currently held at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney, where Zand also spent two of his four years of detention. The detainees are struggling mentally with “very high levels of stress and anxiety,” he says.

Villawood hit the headlines recently after 41-year-old Iraqi man, Ahmad Al-Akabi, committed suicide there on Nov.16. Al-Akabi had reportedly had several claims for asylum rejected.

His death followed the suicide, also at Villawood, of Fijian national Josefa Rauluni, 36, in September.

Tragically, these deaths are not isolated incidents.

In October, the Australian Broadcasting Corp quoted an unnamed “whistleblower” as saying that suicide attempts had taken place at a detention centre in the northern city of Darwin.

In early November, Amnesty International Australia reported that “incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts were visibly on the rise” at the detention centre on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, compared with previous visits there by the organisation.

Around 10 detainees on the island sewed their lips together in protest following Al-Akabi’s death, and there have also been reports of hunger strikes.

Figures provided to IPS by the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) also show an increase in detainee self-harm.

From Jul.1 to Sep. 20, 2010, 25 incidents of self-harm among those held in immigration detention occurred. This compares to 39 recorded self-harm incidents between Jul.1, 2009 and Jun. 30, 2010 and 10 in the 12 months to Jun. 30, 2009.

DIAC insists that many detainees arrive in Australia with pre-existing mental health issues and maintains that asylum seekers are provided with access to mental health care while in detention.

But detainee numbers have exploded in 2010, making for crowded facilities and inhibiting the ability of the system, including mental health services, to cope.

As of Oct.15, the most recent date for which statistics are available, more than 5,300 people were held in Australia’s immigration facilities, about 96 percent of whom arrived by boat. More than 2,200 are Afghani, while there are also substantial numbers from Iran, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Indonesia.

To ease the pressure, several new centres have been opened. The government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also had talks with neighbouring countries, including East Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia, about establishing an offshore Australian detention facility.

Refugee advocates blame the government’s policy of mandatorily detaining all “unauthorised arrivals” for exacerbating the mental anguish of people seeking refuge in Australia.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, describes immigration detention centres as “factories of mental illness” where asylum seekers can languish for years without having their claims for refuge resolved.

He says that three Tamil asylum seekers have been held at Villawood for 18 months and that one man has been there for four years.

“Unlike a prison sentence there is no set date for when there is going to be a definite answer and this just creates tremendous mental anxiety,” says Rintoul.

Australia’s mandatory immigration detention system was introduced in 1992 and has been backed by the country’s major political parties – the centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the conservative liberal-national coalition.

The coalition, under former Prime Minister John Howard, held power from 1996 to 2007 and was widely criticised for what many here viewed as its particularly harsh treatment of asylum seekers.

The ALP, which has governed since its 2007 election victory, was believed to have a more lenient attitude towards refugees. It ended the Howard government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ – whereby asylum seekers were held in detention centres in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – and introduced reforms to mandatory detention policy.

These reforms were designed to minimise the time that asylum seekers were held in immigration centres and included only detaining asylum seekers while they underwent health, identity and security checks; placing the onus on the government to justify a person’s continuing detention; and bringing an end to the practice of detaining children.

But the government has since introduced what advocates have labelled the ‘Indian Ocean Solution’ by establishing detention facilities on Christmas Island. Children also continue to be detained – although in October, immigration minister Chris Bowen committed to moving hundreds of children into “community-based accommodation” by June 2011 – and people still remain in immigration detention for prolonged periods of time.

Mohsen Soltany Zand, the former detainee who, in August, released a collection of poems about his time in immigration detention titled ‘Inside Out’, understands why those in detention are losing hope.

“When you go to bed, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. When you wake up, you don’t know what will happen today, whether you’ll be alive at the end of the day,” he says.

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