Children being held in detention on Christmas Island are regressing, sick and suffering symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, the human rights watchdog says.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has called on the federal government to move all families to mainland Australia for refugee assessment, saying the offshore detention centre is no place for infants and young children.
Commission president Gillian Triggs said conditions at the centre had significantly deteriorated in the four months since her previous visit, impacting most of the 1102 asylum seekers on the island.
“The circumstances are desperate and many of the adults and children are suffering from mental decline... These are a people without much hope,” she told SBS.
“We haven’t reached final conclusions because we will be reporting to the Australian public, to Parliament in September,” she said of her three-day visit last week, “but for the moment, we are deeply concerned by the significantly declining situation.”
Some of them were not leaving their cabins and were not eating.
The Christmas Island facility is again under scrutiny after it was revealed some mothers had threatened suicide in a bid to have their babies resettled in Australia.
Professor Triggs says most of the asylum seekers are stuck in a "legal twilight zone" after waiting a year for removal to offshore processing centres in Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
She is especially concerned about the 174 children in the facility, who are showing signs of regression such as bed-wetting.
Extended interview: Gillian Triggs
There were also unprecedented rates of self-harm among children, with 128 reported cases in the 15 months to March 31.
“When you hold children in this form of detention, they are the first to decline,” Professor Triggs told SBS.
"There is no eye contact with some of them," Professor Triggs told ABC radio on Thursday.
"A lot of the younger babies are not crawling or not doing the things they should be doing at their age group simply because of the conditions."
Pediatrician Elizabeth Elliott, who accompanied Professor Triggs, said most of the children had chest or gut infections, and blamed the cramped and hot conditions asylum seekers were forced to live in.
Children were suffering from nightmares, had become withdrawn or refused to eat.
The symptoms were consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
Professor Elliott also reported high rates of anxiety, depression and self harm among young mothers.
“The reality is over the last few weeks, there’s been a significant spike from let’s say an average of one or two a week of self-harm or attempted suicide to something like eight or ten a week on average,” she told SBS.
The commission said 13 women were under high-risk monitoring, with ten requiring 24-hour watch.
“When you find yourself talking to these women or 12-year-olds who haven’t eaten for three days and lying in their cabins, mothers distraught – in the end, you have to respond as a human being to these stories,” she said.