Australia sued over asylum detainees' health care

File image of Christmas Island detention camp on 26 July 2013 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are detained in offshore camps, including Christmas Island

Asylum-seekers detained on Christmas Island are suing the Australian government over alleged inadequate health care.

A class action case has been filed in the Victoria Supreme Court, with a six-year-old girl as the leading plaintiff.

A lawyer for the group said asylum-seekers' health was being "severely compromised" by being in detention.

The move comes amid mounting debate over Australia's immigration policies, including the detention of children.

All those who arrive in Australia by boat seeking asylum are placed in offshore detention camps, currently on Christmas Island (an Australian territory) and in the Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Living conditions in these camps - and the length of time people spend in them - have been strongly criticised by rights groups and the UN.

Children are also detained, in a policy described by church leaders recently as "state-sanctioned child abuse".

A national human rights inquiry into the treatment of children in immigration detention is continuing, while the government says it is working to reduce the number of detained children.

Compensation sought

The legal case will allege that the government is failing in its duty of care to the asylum seekers.

Australia and asylum

  • Asylum-seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - travel to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
  • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and scores of people have died making the journey
  • Everyone who arrives is detained offshore. Those found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG, not Australia
  • Australia has also intercepted boats at sea, towing boats back to Indonesia and returning asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka
  • Rights groups and the UN have voiced serious concerns about the policies. Australia says the policies are successfully stopping the boats

The lead plaintiff, identified only as AS, is a young girl who has been in detention for a year.

"Since that time she has an ongoing dental infection, allergies, separation anxiety, bed wetting, has developed a stammer and is refusing food. She has been assessed by a child psychiatrist as having Post Traumatic Stress disorder," law firm Maurice Blackburn said in a statement.

But the firm said the case was being brought on behalf of all asylum-seekers detained on Christmas Island in the past three years who "have suffered an injury or exacerbation of injury due to the government's failure to provide adequate health care".

The case is seeking compensation for injuries as well as better medical care, the law firm said.

Australia says its tough asylum policies are aimed at stopping people making the perilous journey by boat. Scores of people have died in recent years after their boats sank.

Last week, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to release some children from detention - but those held in the Christmas Island and Nauru camps are not eligible.

Addressing the human rights inquiry, he also described the fact that children were being detained as "a consequence of the policies that more broadly have been effective in securing Australia's borders... and stopping children dying at sea".

In late July, however, Australia's top human rights official, Gillian Triggs, said the situation at the Christmas Island detention centre had "significantly deteriorated", leaving people "plagued by despair".

She voiced grave concern over "a spike" in self-harm cases and for the welfare of babies and young children.

Responding to Prof Triggs' remarks, a spokesperson for Mr Morrison told the BBC that health care services on Christmas Island were "commensurate with those available in the Australian community".

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