Amnesty urges rethink on island detention

AMNESTY International has implored the Gillard government to begin processing the 387 asylum seekers on Nauru and to rethink its strategy for curbing boat arrivals after describing conditions at the island's camp as ''completely unacceptable''.

A delegation from the human rights body expressed shock at the conditions at the camp after being given unfettered access on Tuesday, saying they were tougher than those at any mainland detention centre and responsible for a ''terrible spiral'' of self-harm, hunger strikes and suicide attempts.

''Processing has to start straight away, or at least tell people when it's going to start and what the time frame is going to be,'' Amnesty's Graham Thom said. After a full day of meeting with detainees, Dr Thom expressed particular concern about nine asylum seekers who have been on prolonged hunger strikes and urged the government to send vulnerable asylum seekers to the mainland. ''A number of people said, ''We think we'll die here. We can't see any other future,'' he said. Among them was an asylum seeker who has been on a hunger strike for 40 days and has lost 19 kilograms. ''His situation would appear to be very, very dire. He looks like he is in a very serious state.''

The scathing criticism of the centre was dismissed by a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who said: ''Conditions in Nauru at times may not be pleasant, but they are the same conditions immigration staff and service providers are working under.''

He said it was not unusual for the processing of claims to take several months to begin. ''It should not come as a surprise that Amnesty does not agree with the regional processing centre on Nauru,'' he said.

Dr Thom urged the government to take a ''close, hard look'' at what it was trying to achieve on Nauru, saying the most poignant moments of the visit were meeting people who had harmed themselves or had been on hunger strikes. One of those interviewed was distressed because his brother had been killed on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan last week.

''All they think is that they've been brought here to be driven crazy so they'll volunteer to go home. That's what they are telling us - and without being able to tell them anything about the processing, how do you dispel those rumours?'' he said. ''In the front of their minds is the fact that they are not being processed and the uncertainty is clearly having an impact on their mental health.''

Dr Thom and Amnesty refugee campaign co-ordinator Alex Pagliaro spent several hours at the processing centre and later visited one of the hunger strikers who had been admitted to hospital.

Dr Thom spoke of cramped conditions in which up to 14 men were living in a single tent.

''In summer, in the heat, it gets to over 40 degrees during the day in those tents and it was certainly very hot and humid when we were in there. When it's raining, as it is now, the tents are leaking and their bedding gets wet at night,'' he said.

Several of those who met the delegation complained of skin conditions that were a consequence of the humidity and wet bedding, Dr Thom said.

Mr Bowen's spokesman dismissed the criticism, saying food and water were available at all times, as was access to medical care and mental health professionals. Recreational activities included sports, English and other classes and excursions.

This story Amnesty urges rethink on island detention first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.