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‘Higher risk of mental illness in long-term immigrant detainees and asylum seekers’

New study shows time in and reason for detention are decisive in incidence of a range of new health problems

22 January 2010. "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."

This is the conclusion of the largest Australian study yet on the health of immigrant detainees, published in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study, conducted by Prof Kathy Eagar of the University of Wollongong on the health records of 720 people in detention in 2005-06, shows how both the time in detention and the reason for detention are decisive factors in the higher rate of new mental health problems among detainees.

Among all migrant detainees, asylum seekers and others, those held in detention for more that 24 months showed significantly higher incidence of new mental illness.

Thus people held in immigration detention centres for long periods of time are more likely to require medical attention for mental health problems than those detained for a shorter time.

The highest rate of new health problems however was recorded in those designated as asylum seekers (unauthorised boat and air arrivals) and detained for more than 24 months.

The most common types of problems included dental and respiratory conditions, and lacerations. Among those detained for more than a year, mental health, social and musculoskeletal problems were common.

"The health of people in immigration detention has attracted considerable attention," Prof Eagar said.

"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, of the Australian National University, says: 


"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."

The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association. 


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