7 Oct 2015

Detention conditions 'too much to handle'

6:27 pm on 7 October 2015

Many people being held in Australian detention centres are suicidal after living in what they describe as "war camps", says a group campaigning for New Zealanders' rights.

A file photo of the jetty on Christmas Island (August 2013)

Photo: AAP

The Iwi n Aus group said about a hundred people have been sent to Christmas Island, while it is decided whether they should be deported.

A New Zealand lawyer, who is representing some of the detainees, said the situation there was getting more and more desperate, and the Serco-operated centre was now in lockdown.

Radio New Zealand has asked the Department of Immigration and Border Control over the last fortnight to clarify how many New Zealanders have been deported or detained, and how many are being held on Christmas Island, but it has not.

Instead, families of those affected have emailed and called ministers, embassies, lawyers and media begging for help.

They have also contacted Iwi n Aus, a group set up to fight for New Zealanders' rights in Australia, which is detailing their experiences.

Its founder Erina Anderson-Morunga said they tell the same stories: lack of access to lawyers, mental health problems and dawn raids by police clad in riot gear to take onshore detainees to Christmas Island.

Ms Anderson-Morunga said a group saw one asylum-seeker set fire to himself and another slit his throat.

And she said they were describing conditions as similar to a war camp, and the uncertainty was leading to mental health problems.

New Zealander Junior Togatuki, 23, begged Australia's immigration minister not to deport him to New Zealand, which he left when he was a pre-schooler, before dying in Australia's Supermax prison last month.

Brisbane woman Deanna Airey, whose fiance is being held at the city's police station, said she was scared to death for him as he had told her he was contemplating suicide: "Every waking minute I live in constant fear that I am going to get a phone call similar to the one Junior's family would have received.

"My fiancé is sharing a cell with at least three others where the conditions are, as he describes, a nightmare, torture, too much to handle any longer.

"I have only been allowed to talk to him by phone call for a few minutes at a time. Sometimes I don't hear from him for a week where I am constantly sick from worrying about what could've happened.

"They are being deprived of contact with the outside in order to make it impossible for them to get their appeal heard, because they cannot obtain contact with lawyers, family members and spouses like myself that are trying to fulfill the appeal process."

Iwi n Aus said dawn raids, with up to 100 riot police, were being carried out at onshore detention centres, so that detainees could be moved to Christmas Island.

"There was a dawn raid at the Yongah Hill detention centre where approximately a dozen or so Kiwis are being sent to Christmas Island," Ms Anderson-Morunga said.

"According to one of the detainees that called me, there were approximately 100 police officers dressed in riot gear rounding them up.

"These people are given no forewarning of what is happening and being shipped to Christmas Island only further isolates them from any assistance and support. The toll on their mental health and wellbeing is overwhelming."

Lawyer Craig Tuck said mental health problems were rife as detainees struggled to cope with not knowing when they will be released or deported.

He said one 35-year-old client he had at Villawood detention centre in Sydney had been crying and feeling desperate.

Mr Tuck said he would be taking the message to politicians to get some action.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: "The Australian Government takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the Australian community from non-citizens who may pose a risk of harm to the Australian community.

"If a non-citizen's visa is cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act, or completes a custodial sentence and does not hold a valid visa, they will be liable for detention and removal from Australia.

"In circumstances where non-citizens have been incarcerated, the Department will seek to remove them directly from the correctional facility.

"In some cases however, due to logistical planning, non-citizens may be taken into an immigration detention facility while removal planning is finalised."