Injuries in detention centres apparently not investigated by Comcare

1st Jul 2015

Workplace insurer Comcare appears to have failed to investigate numerous serious incidents and injuries which occurred at Commonwealth detention centres, according to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request made by the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

The FoI revealed that 449 incidents affecting staff and detainees, including deaths, self-harm, electric shocks, assaults, alleged sexual assault and people admitted to hospital for mental health treatment were reported by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to Comcare between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014. However records show that Comcare did not investigate all incidents, including the attempted suicide by young people.

ALA spokesperson Greg Barns called this a staggering result and said it showed that Comcare was failing to protect staff and detainees who are still at risk in an extremely dangerous situation.

“This information shows that Comcare knew about the deleterious effects of detention on people’s mental health and yet it essentially did nothing,” Mr Barns said.

“Under work, health and safety legislation, Comcare has the mandate to investigate unsafe workplaces – whether these workplaces are unsafe in relation to physical or psychological health.”

“Immigration detention centres run by Australia, whether they are on the mainland, Christmas Island, Manus or Nauru, are covered by this legislation,” Mr Barns said.

“There are major workplaces in Australia that are proud of the fact that they only have one or two workplace incidents a year – yet our detention centres have clocked up nearly 450.”

“This looks staggeringly bad for Comcare and its responsibility to Australian workers,” Mr Barns said. “If this was a mine or a factory in Australia, there would be politicians and workplace inspectors quite rightly asking questions and laying charges.”

“These centres are just accident, injury and illness zones,” Mr Barns said. “They are evidently extremely dangerous places to be whether you are a detainee or an employee

“It’s not just about the detainees – what about the workers? The government has a duty of care to everyone in those facilities,” Mr Barns said.

According to the information released, serious workplace incidents involving detention centre employees included:

  • A contractor witnessed the attempted suicide of an unaccompanied minor in Victoria
  • A worker witnessed a drowning in Nauru, and developed a psychological injury
  • A worker was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in PNG
  • Raw, uncontrolled sewerage was sprayed onto a worker at Nauru
  • A contractor’s legs were crushed in Nauru
  • A worker tested positive for tuberculosis in WA
  • A worker was suspected of contracting Japanese encephalitis in PNG.

Serious workplace incidents involving detainees included:

  • 9 deaths, one of which was a suicide, one of which was the death of an unresponsive 3-month-old baby in Darwin
  • 65 incidents of self-harm or threats of self-harm
  • A detainee was taken to hospital and treated as inpatient for either UTI or sexual assault at Christmas Island
  • A child was diagnosed with hand, foot and mouth disease in NT
  • A three-month-old baby was suspected of having meningitis in NT
  • A detainee was diagnosed with typhoid at Manus.

Of the 449 incidents, there were 186 separate occasions on which detainees were taken to hospital for treatment or examination.

Experiences of detainees included:

  • 65 incidents of self-harm or threats of self-harm
  • 10 assaults
  • 16 incidents of people being found unresponsive or unconscious
  • 25 incidents of people collapsing or fainting
  • 21 seizures - one of these seizures was identified to be the result of a psychiatric injury.

“The high statistics of people collapsing, being found unresponsive, experiencing seizures and self-harming, indicates the toxic environment in which people are being imprisoned, and the deleterious effects on psychological health,” Mr Barns said.

Mr Barns said that the findings of the recent Moss Review contradicted government claims that it has no responsibility for the care or welfare of asylum seekers once it shipped them from Australian territory to overseas detention centres.

“The Work Health and Safety Act has been acknowledged by the Department and Comcare to apply in every detention centre, no matter if it is on Christmas Island, Manus or Nauru,” Mr Barns said.

“It is clear that detention centres are psychologically damaging. Doctors have said it, and these incident reports from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection clearly indicate it. What is Comcare going to do about it?”

“There were 65 incidents of self-harm or threatened self-harm over the twelve month period,” Mr Barns said. “Fourteen of these were at the Wickham Point facility, which had the highest rate of self-harm or threats of self-harm in that year. This means on average there was more than one self-harm incident a month in Wickham Point.”

“Wickham Point had people swallowing and possibly injecting insect repellent due to stress, people refusing to eat or drink, a number of people found unconscious or unresponsive and taken to hospital, and detainees attempting overdoses on medication,” Mr Barns said.

“Wickham Point was the only place where a child was suffering hand foot and mouth disease. However it appears that no inspections were carried out at Wickham Point. Where was Comcare?” Mr Barns said.

According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, regulatory inspections were conducted at Villawood, Christmas Island, Yongah Hill, Pontville, and Melbourne immigration transit accommodation, Manus and Nauru[1].

“There is a clear difference between an investigation and a regulatory inspection. It does not appear that Comcare has undertaken to investigate the psychological conditions of immigration detention centres,” Mr Barns said.

“Comcare is meant to do two things – police Commonwealth workplaces and facilitate improvements in workplace health. Where is the evidence that it is doing its job in immigration detention centres?”

 “This simply is a staggering result on behalf of the federal government’s workplace regulator. What has it been doing?” Mr Barns said.

Mr Barns said the Commonwealth may have a non-delegable duty of care for asylum seekers in its custody. This would mean that the Commonwealth could be held legally responsible for any injury that arises out of a breach of such a duty. This could include psychiatric or physical injury, failure of the Commonwealth to provide adequate medical treatment, or failure to ensure that reasonable care is taken regarding detainees.

Mr Barns said the federal government’s treatment of asylum seekers breached several international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)[2] and United Nations regulations on the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955)[3].

Click here for a detailed analysis of the FoI data and to download the FoI itself.

[1] DIBP Annual Report 2013-2014, p280



Tags: Human rights WorkCover Asylum seekers and refugees Comcare