Comcare - Incidents reported by DIBP FY13/14

FOI reveals Comcare’s knowledge of detention centre conditions

A freedom of information application made by the Australian Lawyers Alliance has exposed the level of Comcare’s knowledge of incidents in Australia’s immigration detention centres.

Information obtained by the Australian Lawyers Alliance, revealed further detail regarding the 449 incidents that were reported to Comcare by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014.

We found that, in relation to asylum seekers, there had been 1 suicide, 1 alleged sexual assault, 65 incidents of self-harm or threats of self harm, 25 instances of people collapsing or fainting, 21 seizures, 16 instances of people being found unresponsive or unconscious, and 186 trips to hospital.

The findings indicate not only the extent of trauma experienced by asylum seekers, but also the difficult conditions which are constantly faced by workers, providing insights into the environment in which all people exposed, and the potential risk of psychological stress or injury.

Under the Work, Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), Comcare has the power to investigate unsafe workplaces, in relation to the physical or psychological health of workers or other persons. The DIBP and Comcare have acknowledged that the Act applies in regional processing centres. We have elaborated upon this in our submission to a Senate committee inquiry into recent allegations regarding Nauru.


There were 9 deaths reported by DIBP – one of which was a suicide, and one was possibly the death of Reza Barati on Manus Island. One was the death of an unresponsive 3-month-old baby with breathing difficulties, and another was the death of a young person who passed away due to a brain tumour. Neither of these two latter incidents were assessed by the Department to constitute a ‘notifiable incident’.

Sexual assault

In May 2014, a client was taken to hospital and treated as inpatient UTI or sexual assault.
This constituted a ‘notifiable incident’.

We are unaware of the client’s age or gender and whether this alleged sexual assault was appropriately investigated.

Other serious incidents

Other incidents that were reported to Comcare were also serious. We highlight these below:

  • During treatment transfer, uncontrolled raw sewerage sprayed onto a worker in Nauru
  • An unexploded ordinance was found in Nauru
  • A contractor’s legs were crushed moving a vending machine in Nauru
  • A child client collapsed caused by an anxiety attack (Inverbrackie, SA)
  • A baby was reported to be bleeding from its belly button (Wickham, NT)
  • A child suffered convulsions and high temperatures (Villawood, NSW)
  • A client was bitten by a snake (Derby, WA)
  • There was biological fluid contact after a worker cut their hand on a knife on which a client had cut themselves (NSW).

Self-harm and threats of self-harm

In 2013/2014, there were approximately 65 threats of self-harm or incidents of self-harm. Many of these were assessed as ‘non-notifiable’ by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

These included:

  • A client tipping petrol over himself and threatening to ignite himself;
  • Clients attempted to overdose on medication;
  • Swallowing nail clippers;
  • Jumping from balconies;
  • Swallowing, inhaling and possibly injecting insect repellent;
  • Sewing lips together;
  • Lacerations;
  • Banging head against the wall;
  • Attempted hanging.

Illness among asylum seekers

In addition, there were many reports of clients being unwell, including:

  • Presenting in a catatonic state
  • Discovered unresponsive (numerous)
  • Stopped breathing (numerous)
  • Seizures (numerous)
  • Collapsed due to dizziness and shortness of breath (numerous)
  • Abdominal, stomach or back pain, and subsequently taken to hospital (numerous)
  • Chest pains (numerous)
  • Shivering, accumulating spittle
  • Collapsed, taken to hospital, suffering from laboured breathing
  • A young person presented with breathing difficulties and was transported to hospital
  • A detainee suffered a seizure however it was determined that it was a psychological injury.

There were 16 instances in which people were found unresponsive or unconscious, 25 instances in which detainees collapsed or fainted, and 1 person ceased breathing. There were 21 seizures.

There are also many vague incident reports of clients ‘feeling unwell – unknown illness’, ‘presented with a medical condition, transferred to hospital’ or ‘taken to hospital for mental health assessment’.
In addition to the above, others were ‘taken to hospital for medical assessment’, or scheduling under the Mental Health Act. Many of these incidents relating to the psychological and physical health of asylum seekers did not constitute ‘notifiable incidents’.

It is questionable as to whether the vague symptoms being reported could be physical indicators of psychological stress or injury.

In total, there were 186 incidents in which detainees were taken to hospital for examination or treatment for physical or psychological conditions.

The experience of workers

Workers have also been exposed to highly traumatic experiences, in addition to the combination of traumatic experiences listed above. There was a ‘near miss carjacking’ in Papua New Guinea in June 2014. In June 2014, a worker, while restraining a client, hit their head on the ground and was unconscious and bleeding.

Incidents were reported regarding the psychiatric injury of workers: post-traumatic stress disorder, which occurred on Manus Island. One worker at Nauru also suffered a psychiatric injury after witnessing a drowning. Another contractor witnessed the self-harm/attempted suicide of a young person, and was reported in Geelong.

Pregnant women and babies

A number of incidents have affected pregnant women:

  • A pregnant client had a miscarriage on Christmas Island
  • A pregnant client was bleeding in Wickham Point, NT
  • A pregnant client had stomach pains in Wickham Point, NT
  • A pregnant client had back and abdomen pain in Brisbane, QLD

In March 2014, a detainee gave birth to a baby girl in Inverbrackie, SA. The Department recorded that the baby was taken to hospital. It is unknown as to whether the baby was born at the detention centre, or in transit to a hospital. It is also unknown as to whether the newborn baby was separated from her mother, and for what period of time.

Similarly, in March 2014 in Broadmeadows, Victoria, a ‘detainee (baby) was ‘returned to hospital’ due to an unknown medical condition. It is unknown as to whether this baby was also separated from its mother, and for what period of time.

In May 2014, a three month old baby was suspected to have meningitis and was taken to Darwin hospital for investigation.

In February 2014, a baby was reported as bleeding from its belly button and was transferred to hospital.

Were these babies separated from their mothers?
If so, does the Department believe that this is acceptable, and for what period of time?

None of these experiences faced by pregnant women or new mothers constituted a ‘notifiable incident’.


There were also 10 assaults within detention centres, including:

  • A client was assaulted by another client, causing serious head injuries (Christmas Island)
  • A client was assaulted, leaving them with a fractured eye socket (Maidstone, VIC)
  • A client was assaulted with an iron bar (Perth, WA).


There were also a number of suspected diseases contracted that were reported by the Department.

A worker was suspected of contracting Japanese encephalitis, which is potentially deadly, on Manus Island. A worker tested positive for tuberculosis in WA. Both of these constituted ‘notifiable incidents’. In Weipa, QLD, workers of the Department received treatment as hospital inpatients for black fly bites, which constituted a notifiable incident.

Asylum seekers also contracted diseases. In Melbourne, an asylum seeker contracted chicken pox. In Darwin, an asylum seeker contracted measles. In Wickham Point, NT, a child was diagnosed with hand, foot and mouth disease. A client was also diagnosed with typhoid on Manus in December 2013.

Comcare’s knowledge

This document reveals Comcare’s basic knowledge of conditions within detention centres in the 2013-2014 year. How much further that knowledge extends, is currently unknown.

The DIBP Annual Report 2013-14 states (at 280) that:

'Comcare conducted regulatory inspections at Villawood, Christmas Island, Yongah Hill, Pontville, and Melbourne immigration transit accommodation (MITA) immigration detention facilities. Comcare also carried out inspections on Manus and Nauru. Both DIBP and Comcare have acknowledged that the Work, Health and Safety Act 2011 applies on Manus.'

It is unknown as to how many formal investigations Comcare conducted of immigration detention facilities.

Previously, a document was made available under FOI laws revealing Comcare’s reports on inspections carried out on Nauru, Christmas and Manus Island detention centres between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014. However, this document does not detail Comcare’s reports of all detention centres.
The document does not state whether there was an inspection or investigation in relation to the alleged sexual assault in May 2014 in Christmas Island.

It is possible that a Comcare investigation did occur, and that the original applicant under FOI laws did not specify ‘investigation’ in their request – thus, if such an investigation did occur, it may not have been captured by the request scope. However, the alternative is, that Comcare did not investigate this alleged assault in May 2014.

If this is the case, it is questionable as to what precedent exists and is tolerated in relation to sexual assaults that occur within immigration detention facilities overseen by the Australian government. This has definite relevance for events in the 2014-2015 year.

Relevance to the Senate Committee inquiry

Currently, a Senate Committee is inquiring into severe allegations regarding the sexual assault of children, sexual harassment of women and children and suppression of information, following the Moss Review of the regional processing centre in Nauru. The Committee will also examine the Commonwealth’s duty of care. The Committee is due to report by 31 July.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance made a submission to the inquiry, asserting that the Commonwealth has a duty of care that may be non-delegable in nature – the highest duty of care at common law. With reference to case law, there are strong similarities to other situations in which a non-delegable duty of care is held, in that the Commonwealth has a relationship of control in relation to the operation of the Nauru detention centre, and that those detained within it have ‘special vulnerability’.

We also submitted that Comcare has a greater role to investigate the physical and psychological health of workers and ‘other persons’ such as asylum seekers, within all detention centres.

You can view the full document released to us here.