Comcare inaction on detention centre abuse shows need for law reform

8th Jun 2016

The report, Untold Damage: Workplace health and safety in immigration detention under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), reveals that sexual abuse, suicides and other serious injuries in immigration detention have been systematically under-reported and possibly concealed.

Sexual abuse in immigration detention has been reported widely. Women, men and children have all been subjected to sexual abuse on Nauru and Manus Island, both in immigration detention facilities and in the community.

“A boy of 16 was indecently assaulted by a worker on Nauru. His mental health deteriorated rapidly after the assault, but Comcare does not appear to have been informed, possibly because he was not hospitalised. This boy’s family was subjected to bullying and death threats following the incident, and both he and his brother were also physically assaulted,” said ALA spokesperson Greg Barns.

“The psychological impacts of sexual assault can be huge. Comcare, however, only appears to be interested in the physical injuries, despite its obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) (WHS Act).

“The WHS Act requires organisations in charge of workplaces to ensure that no one’s health and safety is put at risk. It specifically protects both physical and psychological health. But the kinds of incidents that are reportable under the Act are focused on physical injuries: eight physical injuries are listed as reportable but no psychological ones.

“The biggest risks to detainees’ health in immigration detention, including sexual abuse, mental illness and inadequate hygiene, are not adequately catered for in the Act,” said Mr Barns.

This failure to ensure workplace safety is exacerbating serious physical and psychological harm.

“We have seen terrifying demonstrations of the degree of psychological ill-health in immigration detention centres. Two people have set themselves on fire this year alone, one of whom died and the other hospitalised now for over a month. Many others have self-harmed or attempted suicide. These are clear indicators that psychological health is severely compromised among detainees.

There have been a number of ‘spikes’ in self-harm and suicide attempts both on Nauru and Manus Island. Even where the individual incidents are reported to Comcare, they are sometimes assessed as not-notifiable. Further, there is no mechanism in the legislation to respond to the broader situation that exists at the time of the spike. Often these spikes in self-harm directly follow government announcements,” Mr Barns said.

Poor hygiene is also seriously affecting detainees’ health.

“On Manus Island, Hamid Khazaei died because of an infection that advocacy groups have linked to poor hygiene. On Nauru, a man has suffered permanent hearing loss because he is allergic to bird droppings, which cover the ground. Vermin is everywhere, including mice, scorpions, spiders and mosquitos. In immigration detention, these pose obvious risks to health and safety, but the WHS Act does not recognise them as such,” said Mr Barns.

The report makes a number of specific recommendations about how the WHS Act could be reformed to better protect the health and safety of everyone in immigration detention facilities. In particular, sections on accommodation and the nature of the incidents reportable to Comcare should be revised.

The Report is available at

The ALA is a national association of lawyers, academics and other professionals dedicated to protecting and promoting justice, freedom and the rights of the individual.

For further details, contact Australian Lawyers Alliance Legal and Policy Adviser, Anna Talbot on (02) 9258 7700, Spokesperson Greg Barns on 0419 969846, or at


Tags: Human rights Asylum seekers and refugees Comcare Greg Barns