Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, used a dinner speech attended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to slam her government’s policy of locking up asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Describing it as an “ethical and public health issue”, Hambleton took the unusual step of directly appealing to Gillard about mandatory detention, which came under scrutiny this week in a government inquiry.

*”The AMA believes that the system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is inherently harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees,”* Hambleton said in his Wednesday night speech.

*”The harm is especially acute in the case of children.”*

Documents presented this week to a committee examining Canberra’s long-standing mandatory detention policy revealed a jump in acts and threats of self-harm across the detention network to 1,132 in the 12 months to June 30, from just 90 the previous year.

There were six deaths in immigration facilities — mostly suicides — 1,320 hunger strikes, 2,473 hospitalisations and 93 psychiatric admissions.

An official investigation has already been launched into the incidence of self-harm and suicide, with health officials warning the situation is so bad a detainee attempts to hang himself almost every night.

Hambleton said “despite improvements” to medical care for detainees the fact that asylum seekers were locked up, often at extremely remote locations, meant their health continued to suffer.

*”Prime minister and opposition leader, we leave the politics of asylum seekers to you,”* he said, appealing to both Gillard and conservative leader Tony Abbott, who was also in the audience.

*”But we urge both sides of politics to do all that is possible to ensure that these poor people are assured access to quality health care.”*

Hambleton’s comments came a day after Andrew Metcalfe, the head of the immigration department, urged the government to consider alternatives to mandatory detention following riots and protests at the troubled centres.