UN gives Canberra deadline to address refugee health fears

THE United Nations has given Australia a month to show how it will ensure the mental and physical safety of two refugees, one of whom tried to commit suicide this month.

The man, who tried to hang himself, has been in detention for three years and five months. He had told authorities he was desperately concerned about his brother, who has been detained for almost four years, and who is reportedly severely mentally ill.

Both men have negative Australian Security Intelligence Organisation assessments and face being detained indefinitely.

The men's lawyer, University of Sydney international law professor Ben Saul, took their cases - and those of 36 other refugees - to the UN Human Rights Committee in August last year.

Professor Saul and his team urged the committee to ask Australia to immediately release the detainees to avoid them suffering ''irreparable [psychological] damage''. The committee declined.

Professor Saul wrote to the committee last week in the wake of the man's attempted suicide.

''The [detainees] regret that the United Nations is unable to protect their rights at a time when the state party [Australia] has proven itself systematically incapable of ensuring their safety,'' he wrote.

He said the ''unnecessary infliction of trauma'' upon the group in detention obliged Australia to provide ''effective remedies for such treatment, including appropriate compensation''.

The committee responded by asking Australia to provide information by December 17 on ''the concrete measures taken to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the [detainees] and protect them from the risk of self-harm and to alleviate the high level of anxiety resulting from prolonged detention''.

It also asked for a psychiatric assessment on the brother of the man who attempted suicide.

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said the Immigration Department tried to detain people in the most suitable and least restrictive facilities, where possible.

''Irrespective of the type of facility in which a person is accommodated, every effort is made by the department and service providers to ensure people have access to services and support, including access to comprehensive physical and mental healthcare,'' the spokesman said. ''We also ensure they have access to specialist health and mental health services delivered by qualified, registered and trained healthcare professionals.''

The government was also considering the High Court's ruling on people with negative ASIO assessments, the spokesman said.

The court ruled that denying a protection visa to people with adverse security assessments was ''invalid'', because it was at odds with the Migration Act.

It threw the legal standing of more than 50 people with negative assessments - many of them Tamils - into doubt.

Mr Bowen's spokesman said the government had already announced people in that situation would, in time, have access to independent review, but would fully respond to the complex issues raised by the case ''in due course''.

A group of Sri Lankans were deported on Monday.

This story UN gives Canberra deadline to address refugee health fears first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.