SYDNEY (Reuters) - A former healthcare worker at Australia's immigration detention centres said on Thursday the government asked him to cover up evidence that children held in the camps were suffering from widespread mental illness caused by their confinement.
Under policies aimed at stopping asylum seekers reaching Australia's mainland by boat, migrants are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific nation of Nauru where they face long periods of detention while they are processed.
Peter Young, a doctor who previously supervised mental health services at the camps, said at a hearing held by the Australian Human Rights Commission that he was asked to remove figures from a report detailing the extent of the problem.
"Well the department has been fairly, I guess it's fair to say, negative towards that report," he said, referring to the Department of Immigration. "They asked us to withdraw the figures from our reporting."
Refugee advocates say that long-term detention, combined with a lack of clarity on where and when the asylum seekers may be resettled, contribute to a host of mental health problems at the facilities.
This year, detainees at a centre in the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island sewed their lips together as part of a hunger strike protest against their treatment.
Immigration Department Secretary Martin Bowles said that he was not in a position to deny the allegations since he was not present when the report was submitted, but urged the commission not to rely on a "one-sided" account.
"If our staff did an inappropriate thing, then I will deal with that," he said. "Our normal practice is to assess these things."
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government has boasted of its success in deterring asylum seekers and says that the policies are needed to save lives at sea and to protect Australia's sovereignty.
But the policies have drawn criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations, which has raised concerns that Australia could be in violation of its obligations as a signatory to U.N. refugee conventions.
This week, a group of prominent Christian leaders accused Immigration Minister Scott Morrison of committing "state-sanctioned child abuse" with the government's tough border security measures.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)