High self-harm rates among detained asylum seekers prompts calls for action

Black and white barbed wire fence

Due to inconsistent reporting processes, particularly in offshore detention, researchers say it is likely that the rates of self-harm incidents among the Australian asylum seeker population are under-reported. Image: Pixabay

Rates of self-harm among asylum seekers in detention are more than 200 times the Australian community rates for hospital-treated self-harm, according to new research.

In the first known study of its kind, University of Melbourne researchers have examined all self-harm incidents recorded as occurring among the Australian asylum seeker population between August 2014 and July 2015.

During the 12-month period, there were 949 incidents of self-harm recorded.

The highest rates occurred among asylum seekers detained in offshore (Nauru and Manus – rate of 260 and 54 per 1000 respectively) and onshore detention (257 per 1000), compared with those in community-based arrangements (5 per 1000) and community detention (27 per 1000).

The most common methods of self-harm were cutting (37 per cent), self-battery (26 per cent) and attempted hanging (11 per cent).

There were no significant differences in self-harm incidents between males and females in onshore detention or community-based arrangements, however female asylum seekers in Nauru were significantly more likely to self-harm than males.

University of Melbourne PhD Candidate Kyli Hedrick at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health said the exceptionally high rates of self-harm among detained asylum seekers warrants urgent attention.

“Our findings illustrate the detrimental impact of immigration detention on the health of asylum seekers,” Ms Hedrick said.

The rates of self-harm among community-based asylum seekers were found to be closer to hospital-treated self-harm rates in the wider Australian community, prompting calls for community-based processing.

“Compared to rates observed in the general Australian community, and among asylum seekers in community-based settings, our research shows detained asylum seekers are at most risk,” Ms Hedrick said.

“This highlights the urgent need for community-based processing to be implemented to help reduce the causes of distress and self-harm associated with detention settings. Such an approach would also need to address the conditions associated with community-based processing already known to cause mental distress.”

Due to inconsistent reporting processes, particularly in offshore detention, researchers say it is likely that the rates of self-harm incidents among the Australian asylum seeker population are under-reported.

“This highlights the need for independent monitoring and reporting of self-harm among asylum seekers to better inform the evidence-based management and prevention of self-harm,” Ms Hedrick said.

“Without urgent changes to government policy regarding mandatory immigration detention it is clear that the health of asylum seekers remains at risk.”

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