The Everyday Violence In Our Detention Centres


In the early hours of 21 May in 2011, a detainee in a Christmas Island detention facility tried to hang himself.

Three thousand kilometres away, as the sun began to rise, a family of two adults and five children in a Perth detention facility went on hunger strike.

At around lunchtime another man in Darwin threatened to harm himself, a sentiment which was echoed five minutes later and 4000 km away again at Christmas Island.

More threats of self harm occurred at facilities across the country as the sun began to set. The day ended with another five asylum seekers hunger striking in Darwin.

This is a typical day in Australia’s immigration detention centres. But these details, and the statistics behind these fleeting glimpses, are what the Department of Immigration and Citizenship won’t release, at least on their own accord.

Two years ago, when ABC journalist Wendy Carlisle asked the department’s media spokesperson Sandi Logan whether summaries of self harm and hunger strike incidents were released, his blunt reply was “no”. When Detention Logs asked for similar statistics of detention incidents two weeks ago the department once again refused.

Because the department won’t make this information accessible to the public we’ve put it together ourselves. Detention Logs has compiled the most comprehensive dataset ever collected about the lives of men, women and children in Australia’s immigration detention centres.

Detention Logs is an independent site that publishes documents and data about Australian detention centres. The first wave of data is a searchable database of 7632 reported incidents across immigration detention facilities from October 2009 to May 2011. These events range from self-harms, assaults and escapes to electric fence failures, complaints and aborted deportations.

View The Global Mail’s interactive tool based on Detention Logs data here.

Each incident contains a small summary of what happened, and some are chilling to read. Swallowing razor blades. Swallowing washing powder or pills or hand sanitiser. Detainees digging mock graves. Banging heads against floors or mirrors or doors. Hanging nooses from basketball hoops. These are just some of the 921 actual, attempted or threatened self harm incidents reported over nearly 20 months. There was an average of 46 self harm incidents per month — more than one self harm incident a day in Australian detention centres.

But beneath these one line summaries lies an entire database of largely untapped information — all of which is available for access under freedom of information laws. Each incident summary forms part of a larger “Incident Detail Report” in the Immigration Department’s records systems. We’ve requested a small number of these incidents, which describe in excruciating detail some of the events that have occurred.

One report, listed as an “accident/injury” in Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, describes a detainee rolling himself out of his bed onto the floor and refusing to move. He was unclean and had defecated in his pants, as the officer who attended him “suspected incontinence with a strong faeces smell”.

In a review of the incident, an officer wrote that “these issues are not out of the ordinary and unusual from clients who have been in our care under the same circumstances, these were never an indicator as potential self-harm”.

Other incidents show the desperation of the detainees — who include asylum seekers, refugees and visa-overstayers — held within these compounds. There were 850 reported incidents of voluntary starvations across the network in the reporting period. Curtin Immigration Detention Centre had the highest rate of hunger strikes at 388 — despite only being open for 12 months of the 20-month period. 454 incidents were categorised as assaults, ranging from serious allegations of sexual assault to physical scuffles and verbal threats. North West Point Immigration Facility had the highest number of these events at 137, with Northern IDC at 67 and Villawood IDC at 62.

Escapes are also a common occurrence with 137 reported across the entire network. More incidents show just how many children are born into detention with 28 births reported in the timeframe. Six deaths in custody were also logged in the data.

Top 10 Incident Categories Number of Incidents
Accident/Injury Serious 877
Complaint Unresolved on Time 621
Disturbance – Minor 599
Self Harm – Threatened 555
Voluntary Starvation (<24 hrs) 522
Abusive/Aggressive Behaviour 479
Self Harm – Actual 336
Voluntary Starvation (>24 hrs) 328
Complaint – re Minor Incident 308
Assault – Minor 286

Our analysis also reveals that more self harm incidents occurred in the only offshore facility operational during the reporting period — on Christmas Island. Of the incidents categorised as actual, threatened or attempted self harm North West Point Immigration Facility, which is located on Christmas Island, outflanks the other facilities with 430 reported incidents. Curtin IDC had 91, Northern IDC had 86, Villawood 72 and melbourne ITA 62.

But these reported events are a minimal account of what is actually going on in Australia’s detention facilities.

Some incidents classified as “accident/injury serious”, which represent the largest category of incidents across the network at 877, are wrongly labelled and should be self harm incidents. This means the number of self-harm events in detention is actually higher than the reported figures.

The recent 2012/2013 Auditor General’s report into the Immigration Detention Network was critical of the system where Incident Detail Reports are stored. The Auditor General wrote that “DIAC’s nominated information system, the CCMDS Portal, is not an effective tool for storing or sharing information about detainees or the service they receive.”

The audit also found that “detainee records were incomplete, documents were duplicated, and documents relating to one detainee were held on another detainee’s CCMDS Portal record”.

What this means is that the data collected here, shocking as it may be, represents a reduced amount of incidents than what has actually happened in immigration detention.

The data that’s been assembled raises many more questions. Do the rate of self-harm, assaults and hunger strikes continue in 2012 and 2013? Will the data obtained from Nauru and Manus Island show that more serious events are occurring in the new offshore facilities, in line with the data from Christmas Island? And how accurate are the reports entered into this system?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be answering some of the questions raised by this data, and along with Detention Logs we will help enhance greater understanding of what is happening in our detention centres.

Do you have more information about events in Immigration Detention Centres? Contact

Luke Bacon, Paul Farrell, and Lawrence Bull are the co-founders of Detention Logs, a project designed to bring accountability to Australia's immigration detention network.