The largest study yet carried out into the health records of people held in detention in Australian immigration prisons*, and published in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, shows that the length of time in detention and the reasons for that detention had a significant effect on the rate of new mental health problems among detainees.
The evidence appears to show that the longer the period of detention, the higher the rate of mental health problems. Those eventually designated as asylum seekers also displayed similar higher rates of mental health problems. Amongst those held for more than a year, mental health, social and musculoskeletal problems were common against the more common dental and respiratory conditions, and lacerations found amongst shorter-term detainees.
According to Prof Kathy Eagar, Professor of Health Services Research and Director of the Centre for Health Service Development at the University of Wollongong, "The health of people in immigration detention has attracted considerable attention. In particular, there is almost universal criticism of the policy of detaining asylum seekers, particularly in terms of the mental health implications."
In an accompanying editorial in the MJA, Dr Christine Phillips, Senior Lecturer in General Practice and Community Health at the Australian National University, writes: "The evidence is growing that asylum seekers are likely to be those most psychologically damaged by immigration detention, and that their children are particularly vulnerable."
"There is a good case to be made on health grounds that immigration detention should be used in very limited ways for asylum seekers, and never for children."
* 720 detainees' heath records from the 2005-06 financial year were used.