A former chief psychiatrist to Australia's detention centres has described the government's treatment of asylum seekers as akin to torture.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, Dr Peter Young said the Immigration Department was deliberately harming vulnerable people to pressure them into giving up their attempts to come to Australia.
Dr Young was for the past three years the director of mental health services for International Health and Medical Services, the organisation providing medical care to Australian detention centres on the mainland and offshore.
Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent back by Australia queue to enter the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle, Sri Lanka, in July. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP
He said Australia had created an environment that was “inherently toxic” and used “strong coercive pressure” and “suffering” to achieve its goals.
“If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition,” he told Guardian Australia.
“It has characteristics which over time reliably cause harm to people's mental health. We have very clear evidence that that's the case.”
Dr Young criticised the government for endangering the health of asylum seekers by leaving people who were suicidal in detention, and for returning people with less severe problems to detention, against medical advice.
He said transporting patients from offshore detention centres to Australia for treatment also created false hope that they could remain in Australia and could lead to legal complications.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists commended Dr Peter for speaking out about the ''shocking treatment'' of asylum seekers in immigration detention.
"Dr Peter Young's brave stand is worthy of praise,'' said the RANZCP's president Dr Murray Patton on Tuesday.
''As a psychiatrist, he has upheld his professional and ethical obligation to uphold the best interest of vulnerable patients for whom he had a responsibility for.
"The college appreciates that Dr Young has taken this public stand at some personal cost.''
It comes after an inquiry heard last week that the Immigration Department told medical experts to suppress statistics showing alarming rates of mental health problems among a significant number of children in detention.
During the third hearing of the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in detention, Dr Young revealed the department had explicitly told International Health and Medical Services to "withdraw" figures showing children in detention were suffering very high levels of mental illness.
The results "are very concerning. It's quite clear a large number of children have significant distress," said Dr Young.
"The department has been very negative towards the results … They are concerned about what the figures are showing.
"They have asked us to withdraw the figures from the reporting."
with Sarah Whyte