Sydney (AFP) - Australia's human rights commissioner on Thursday said conditions at an asylum-seeker camp on Christmas Island have "significantly deteriorated" with children plagued by despair and suffering symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gillian Triggs and leading paediatrician Elizabeth Elliott visited the centre last week as part of a national inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum in Australia.
It followed reports that up to a dozen mothers had attempted suicide this month, believing their babies would have a better chance of being settled in Australia if they were orphans.
She said she held "grave concerns" for the welfare of the 1,102 asylum-seekers in the facility, particularly the 174 children. Christmas Island is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
"In the four months since we (last) visited Christmas Island, the situation for asylum-seekers has significantly deteriorated," Triggs said after interviewing hundreds of detainees over three days.
She said 13 women were on high-level suicide watch with 10 of them requiring 24-hour monitoring, where a guard sits outside their room with the door open.
They are mostly mothers concerned about their children with no places for babies to learn to crawl or walk "in the metal containers where they are confined in the extreme heat".
"Christmas Island is no place for infants and young children," she said.
"Most were ill with chest or gut infections -- reflecting the large number of families living in unacceptably cramped and high density accommodation intended for 'temporary' use."
Triggs said there was an unprecedented rate of self-harm among children with 128 cases reported from January 2013 to late March 2014. In the same period, 89 adults self-harmed.
"Of greatest concern was the high rate of distress -- anxiety, depression and self-harm amongst otherwise healthy young mothers with young children," she said.
"Many mothers are depressed after giving birth and suffering health problems related to childbirth and the unhygienic conditions in the camps.
"This maternal distress has the added impact of disrupting the mother-child bond and will potentially have lasting adverse effects on the mental health of their children."
She added that many children suffered recurrent asthma and irritation of the eyes and skin, reflecting the dirty environment they lived in, as well as nightmares or flashbacks.
Others had developed bed-wetting or stuttering and had withdrawn to their rooms or refused to eat with Elliott describing the symptoms as "consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder".
Triggs said most of the asylum-seekers were stuck in a "legal twilight zone", waiting a year for removal to Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Any boatpeople who arrived in Australia after July 19, 2013 cannot be resettled in the country, regardless of whether they are eventually judged to be genuine refugees. They are instead sent to camps in the Pacific for processing or resettlement.
The government had no immediate comment.