Exclusive: Mystery surrounds deaths in immigration detention as answers are delayed or denied

The Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.
The Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.

EXCLUSIVE

 

ALMOST half the deaths in immigration detention over the past five and a half years remain unsolved, including two deaths from 2013 and three deaths from 2014.

Figures obtained by Community News reveal that since January 2011, 21 people have died in immigration detention, including 18 in onshore detention.

The death toll could be higher, as the figures do not include all stillbirths, infants who died in hospital shortly after birth, or miscarriages of people in immigration detention.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection refused to answer questions about infant mortality and miscarriages among detainees and a Freedom of Information request was rejected, despite new claims women detained at Nauru suffer from a high rate of pregnancy complications.

Ten of the officially acknowledged deaths are still under investigation, with two from 2013 – including the death of a nine-week old baby- three deaths from 2014, three from last year, and three deaths to-date in 2016.

It took the Department of Immigration more than four months to answer some questions on deaths in immigration custody, with the questions sent on March 4 and answered on July 7 this year, and after five months the Department still refused to comment on infant mortality – despite promising more information.

Two people died in immigration detention on Manus Island in 2014 and one asylum seeker died while living in the community on Nauru earlier this year. While the deaths of people in onshore detention are investigated by the relevant state coroner, investigations of these deaths are still being conducted by the Papua New Guinea and Nauru authorities.

Dr Barri Phatarfod from Doctors for Refugees told Community News that investigating deaths in immigration custody was hampered by secrecy and a lack of access.

“The main barrier in investigating these deaths are the lack of inquests or other formalised proceedings where medical records are required to be produced. Without a legally compelling obligation, these records remain hidden forever or destroyed,” she said.

“There is also lack of protection offered to those who are witnesses. Behnam Sateh lives under daily threats on Manus for testifying against the killers of Reza Barati and no one else will testify in that case. Others on bridging visas are also always ‘cautioned’ against speaking out. Doctors have been fired from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) for raising questions regarding dangerous practices.

“Hamid from Manus (2014) and Omid from Nauru (2016) both died in Brisbane and Hamid’s coronial inquest is this November, which is more than two years after he died,” she said.

Researcher Ben Pynt spent 10 months working as the Co-ordinator of Detention Advocacy for Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN), in 2014 and 2015.

“Darwin was a hub for people from Manus Island and Nauru seeking medical treatment. I saw a number of women who had miscarried on Nauru or were suffering significant problems with their pregnancy,” he told Community Newspaper Group.

“I put in a Freedom of Information request on infant mortality and morbidity and it was rejected on the grounds it was too big. The Department did not keep a particular record of infant mortality, and they would need to find the record of every woman in detention and determine if she had been pregnant and had had problems.

“I saw dozens of women who had significant problems with their pregnancy. Eleven women had serious problems, including at least four who miscarried and had to have an abortion… in just 10 months,” he said.

Mr Pynt said the rate of ovarian cysts among women on Nauru was “way above average, possibly because of exposure to phosphate”.

Natasha Blucher, the current advocacy co-ordinator for DASSAN, worked on Nauru as a senior case worker before being one of the Save The Children staff deported from the island by the Nauruan government.

“It appears there is a high incidence of ovarian cysts among women on Nauru and a lot of women had urinary tract infections. I am aware of several miscarriages,” she said. “My former colleagues and I tried to ascertain why the high rate of cysts was occurring and we believe it is either the phosphate exposure or dehydration.”

Ms Blucher explained that there was no access to boiled water for asylum seekers detained on Nauru and no water containers apart from small cups.

“They would have to get out of their tent and walk 300 or 400m to get one cup of water. In hot conditions, and with a lot of people suffering depression, they weren’t drinking enough,” she said. “We had problems with the drinking water quality in the staff area. On one occasion the supply was contaminated with petrol.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection refused to answer questions on the rate of ovarian cysts among immigration detainees and asylum seekers on Nauru.

According to the most recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there were 10,879 cases of ovarian cysts requiring hospital treatment in the financial year 2013-14. Based on the estimations of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this means the rate of ovarian cysts requiring hospital treatment in Australia is one in every 1,084.5 women.

One unsolved immigration detention death from 2013 was that of Shakti Amar, a nine-week-old baby who died at the Royal Darwin Hospital on October 16, 2013, having been a detainee in Darwin Airport Lodge.

A spokesperson for the coroner of the Northern Territory said the Darwin Magistrate Court’s inquest into the baby’s death would begin on January 16 next year, two years and four months after the death.

A spokesperson for the Coroner’s Court of NSW said while a death in detention was subject to a mandatory inquest, the death in hospital of a detainee was not covered by the same guarantee. This means that a number of deaths of immigration detainees – including children born to detainee parents – may have gone without an inquest, because the death did not occur within the detention facility itself.

The other immigration detention death from 2013 that remains unsolved occurred at the Phosphate Hill detention centre on Christmas Island, WA.

Dawn Wright, Listings Manager at the WA State Coroner’s office, said “the length of time for an investigation to be completed can vary depending on the complexity of the circumstances surrounding the death and issues which are identified throughout the investigation, including follow-up investigations”.

“The coronial process is mindful of the grief which family members are experiencing and every effort is made to progress the matter as soon as practicable,” Ms Wright said, adding that the Coroner’s Court will not provide confidential details of any death to the media.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said the Department’s service providers “record and report deaths as soon as they occur, whether in Australia or in a regional processing country”.

“Under contract terms, service providers are required to report all incidents within set timeframes, including immediate notification of critical incidents,” the spokesperson said. “The Department takes all possible action to care for people in detention and to prevent deaths in immigration detention facilities.”

Dr Phatarfod said the giant corporate medical contractor IHMS “depends heavily” on the Department for “extremely lucrative contracts”… “and might prefer to put the blame for any adverse event on to one of their expendable contracted doctors rather than expose any DIBP culpability”.

Dr Phatarfod said the incidence of deaths in immigration custody was the tip of the iceberg.

“By the Department’s own figures, in the 12 months between July 2014 and July 2015 there were around 1000 self-harm events reported in the Immigration Detention Centres. Around 750 were onshore, 160 in Nauru and about 70 on Manus. We know self-harm is extremely under-reported; partly because on Manus they get locked in Chauka isolation unit for up to a week for self-harming and in Nauru they get criminally charged,” she said. “Also, no guard likes having self-harm recorded on their watch. So 1000 episodes in a population of around 3000 at that time means one in three people made suicide attempts. In any other cohort this would produce a massive outcry.”

Dr Phatarfod said the number of deaths would be much higher were it not for 24-hour surveillance, as well as a lack of lethal implements.

A spokeswoman from the Victorian Coroner’s Court said she was unable to look into any file without the name of the deceased. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection ignored requests from Community News for the names of the dead.

“Whilst the court regrets any delays that are experienced in producing inquest findings, this is unfortunately unavoidable due to the constant nature of the day-to-day work which each coroner is required to undertake for the benefit of all bereaved families,” she added.

Of the 18 deaths in onshore immigration detention since the beginning of 2011,two occurred at the Curtin detention centre in WA, two at Yongah Hill in Northam (WA), two at Phosphate Hill on Christmas Island, four at Villawood in NSW, two in Sydney IRH, and one death each in Darwin, North West Point facility in NSW, Melbourne ITA, Maribyrnong IDC in Melbourne, Wickham Point IDC outside Darwin, and Scherger IDC in Weipa, Queensland.

Six of the resolved cases were suicides.

Of the 10 unresolved deaths, two were on Manus Island and one on Nauru, two at Yongah Hill, one at Villawood, one at Darwin, one at Phosphate Hill, one at Melbourne, and one at North West Point.