Study finds lengthy detention harms asylum seekers

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Not only is prolonged detention of asylum seekers morally objectionable, it is causing long-term damage to the mental health of people seeking protection in Australia from persecution and danger. In an innovative study, Dr Tony Ward looks at the likely damage done to the mental health of people who have made successful claims for asylum, and estimates the likely costs of treatment to remedy the effects of prolonged detention.

Rev Alistair Macrae, with Ms Caz Coleman and Dr Tony Ward
Rev Alistair Macrae, with Ms Caz Coleman and Dr Tony Ward

The report, Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers, was launched on 12 October at St Brigid’s church, North Fitroy, by Rev Alistair Macrae, President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church of Australia.

He said that all the mainstream churches were united in their opposition to the current policies of mandatory detention in remote camps. Australia was the only developed country to treat asylum seekers so harshly. He urged church and community groups to continue efforts to mobilise public opinion against such cruel and unnecessary policies. He cringed when he heard the rhetoric of “turn the boats back”, when what this was really saying was to refuse to listen to people pleading with us for protection.

Tony Ward
Dr Tony Ward

Dr Tony Ward of Milbur Consulting highlights that prolonged detention results in significant additional mental health costs after people are released from prolonged detention. He conservatively judges that trauma sufferers will have lifetime mental health costs 50% more than the average – amounting to an extra $25,000 per person. Dr Ward reached these results using innovative costing approaches developed in the Netherlands.

His study has reinforced other findings that being in detention for more than two years resulted in significant new mental health issues for more than one third of detainees in 2006-07. This was ten times the rate of mental health problems for those detained for less than three months.

Commending the study at the launch, Ms Caz Coleman said that Dr Ward had provided further important hard evidence of the negative results of prolonged detention. She said it was urgent that governments and the community think purposefully about what arrangements needed to be put in place so that Australia could put an end to prolonged mandatory detention in remote locations.

Ms Coleman is a current member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution advising the Federal Minister for Immigration, and also on the Detention Health Advisory Group. She was previously Director of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project which has extensive experience providing accommodation and services for asylum seekers and refugees. She is now the lead writer for this project of the Yarra Institute.

Attending the launch were representatives from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, and the Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. The project is being supervised by Dr Rowan Ireland and Dr Bruce Duncan.

The Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy is an ecumenical research Institute within the Melbourne College of Divinity. The project, which is especially concerned about the situation of women and children in detention, is funded by Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand.

Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detentionof asylum seekers

Click HERE to listen to launch.

For Mark Colvin’s interview with Caz Coleman on the ABC’s PM on Fiday 14 October, click HERE.

Please click HERE to read the full report by Dr Tony Ward.

For the Age article, Where to now?” by Russell Skelton (14 October), click  HERE.

For Michael Gordon’s “Welcome to the asylum seekers” in the Saturday Age (15 October) click HERE.

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