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Department of Home Affairs immigration health care contractor faces criminal charges over death of person seeking asylum

On 27 April, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) healthcare provider, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), attended court in Sydney to face criminal charges relating to the death of a person seeking asylum in one of Australia’s detention centres.

These charges emerged after Comcare, the federal work health and safety regulator, investigated an incident in which a 26-year-old Iraqi national took his own life at Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in 2019.

This lead to allegations that DHA and IHMS failed to comply with health and safety standards, exposing people in their care in detention centres to the risk of death. This includes failing to provide adequate access to mental health support.

Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has filed two charges which could see a penalty of up to $3 million for IHMS.

The next court appearance will be on August 17, with a trial likely to happen next year.

This case is an important development in holding the healthcare provider accountable after systemic medical neglect in Australia’s detention regime, which has caused unimaginable harm to the health and safety of people held in detention, as well as costing at least 11 lives of people in detention centres.

Doctors, caseworkers, lawyers, and community groups have long been concerned about the mental health and safety of people in detention centres, many of whom are experiencing severe distress without adequate emergency mental health care.

As of 28 February 2021, there over 1,500 people held in immigration detention centres around Australia, around one-third of whom are detained arbitrarily simply for arriving in Australia by sea to exercise their right to seek asylum and a significant further number who may also be arbitrarily detained but for other reasons.

Carolyn Graydon, Principal Solicitor and Manager of the Human Rights Law Program at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said:

“We are deeply disturbed about the continuing poor standards of both mental and physical health care received by our clients in immigration detention centres, including those held in North West Point on Christmas Island where the extreme isolation adds to people’s mental distress.”

“People held in detention centres are supposed to receive a standard of health care commensurate with that available in the community, however, we see large gaps and an intransigent lack of accountability for closing these gaps.”

“The Government should be standing in the dock alongside IHMS as it is Government policies of protracted, arbitrary detention which are the root causes and are known to cause acute harm to people. With the average period of detention now at a completely unacceptable 627 days, it is well over time that the Government also be held accountable for the deliberate infliction of this known harm done to thousands of people over decades, in breach of their basic human rights.”

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition said: 

“Comcare’s prosecution of the Government and IHMS is very welcome. Neither the Government, Ministers of Immigration nor IHMS has ever been held accountable to the courts for deaths in detention or the lack of care provided to detainees.”

“We are looking forward to the details of the Government’s and IHMS’s detention practices being publicly exposed in court.”

“But the key to saving lives, and preventing the mental health distress is to abolish ‘the factories for mental illness,’ and end the detention business altogether.”

Story Source: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

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