Revelations of a detention centre spy


Woomera Detention CentreIn 2002 I was employed as a psychologist at Woomera Detention Centre. I witnessed riots, hunger strikes, escapes, attempted suicides (including by children as young as ten) and depression that was so profound as to render the sufferer mute and inert.

I sat in the dust with detainees and heard acounts of war, persecution, torture and loss. It was clear that the environment was retraumatising and toxic. No treatment could neutralise this impact. What was needed by detainees was 'normal ' life.

I realised I had a profound ethical dilemma. There was a deep conflict of interest. In being compliant to the administration and its political allegiances, I was unable to ensure the protection and my duty of care towards these vulnerable people.

To reconcile the situation with my conscience I became a kind of mole. I appeared to toe the line with management and perform my normal duties as requested. These included ineffective, box-ticking welfare checks, and paperwork documenting that psychological assessment/treatment had occurred.

I also wrote off-the-record reports for lawyers on behalf of detainees, whose stories I listened to.

The arguments over the relative merits of location and of onshore or offshore detention mask the awful truth. All prolonged mandatory detention of those fleeing persecution is catastrophic for detainess, violates human rights, and demeans those who inflict and have oversight of the system.

Is this the opinion of a fringe of unrealistic soft on border protection, bleeding hearts? Actually no. The Australian Medical Journal has added its voice to the call for an end to prolonged mandatory detention, warning that time in detention is associated with poor mental and physical health.

Sadly it seems little has changed since the Howard era when voices of concern were raised regarding the alarming rates of self harm in detention centres and the damage done particularly to children.

If anyone had set out to construct a place that replicated the original trauma of those fleeing war, tyranny and persecution our detention centres would be perfect. Australia's detention system detains without trial or charge for indeterminate periods of months and years. Remote and offshore centres are (deliberately) out of sight and out of mind and beyond accountability.

There is little stimulating activity for children or adults, who become bored and institutionalised. The inmates are under 24 hour surveillance. There is separation from family, friends and culture, and uncertainty of reunion. Procedures are unclear and inconsistent. Detainees hover in limbo, their fate manipulated for the political ends of the government of the day.

Within high fences, they are confined with distressed fellow detainees. There are systems of punishment that include physical restraint, isolation cells and separation. Dependent like children upon their captors, they become hostages, experiencing a form of Stockholm Syndrome. They perceive that they must be submissive to enable emotional survival or release.

Loss of hope and dammed-up tension and despair then erupts as riots and self harm. The prisoners live in fear of being sent back to their persecutory or war torn country and of torture and death. The paperwork required is a Kafkaesque joke, and a test many are doomed to fail.

Driven to save their lives and those of their children, asylum seekers display uncommon resilience and courage.

They need to be accorded their legal rights under the refugee convention, and to receive justice and respect rather than treatment.

After release, psychological treatment can help with the management of previous trauma that now includes the detention experience. Most become valuable Australian citizens. I recently heard an interview with a 20-year-old former Afghani detainee; a boy in Woomera during my time there, he was now studying at university and sounded really happy.

The saga of long term detention and health and medical services in situe is unnecessary.

Brief assessment and release into a receptive community would eliminate many moral psychological and financial problems. However, being part of the current detention machinery remains ethically untenable. Psychologists are used to mask and deny the systemic damage to the hearts, minds and souls of vulnerable people.

The system also demeans and harms the staff and the community who become complicit.



Lyn Bender Lyn Bender is a psychologist and social commentator. 

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Woomera Detention Centre, offshore processing, Malaysia Solution



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Existing comments

Lyn Bender's moving account of life in detention is the umpteenth I have read. Which account will be the straw that breaks this evil system of detention? Everyone who cares now knows how terrible the system is, how damaging to the lives of those detained and also to those who work in detention centres. That the government fails to replace the system with something more humane is a disgrace.

What is it that enables this sytem to persist?
Janet | 28 September 2011

Oh, the irony! Remember John Howard manipulating public opinion via the damage to children in the "children overboard" days? Thank you, Lyn - I am one of many (but apparently not enough) who find the present system and the politics driving it as a shame upon our nation. Perhaps 30 years on there will be a parliamentary apology ...
james mcpherson | 28 September 2011

What is a compassionate and realistic plan of action that we could put to the government by which refugees and their children can released more quickly into the Australian community?

We cannot expect politicions solve moral problems.After all, we live in a democracy where our governing leaders are responsive to what the majority of their citizens want.
Ray O'Donoghue | 28 September 2011

thank you for speaking out.You information is what I expected. What can we do to help?
Bev Smith | 28 September 2011

Can you get anyone in government to listen to you? If this is onshore processing, what of offshore dumping? Are we a civilised nation?
Rose Marie Crowe | 28 September 2011

The system is abhorrent and should be dismantled. But people have been saying this for years and it seems unlikely to occur in the short term.

The Government outsources the running of the detention centres. Why is it not mandatory for the companies that run them to actually provide enough resources and support for the "inmates" so that they can at least make some kind of a life? It should be part of the contract.

While on that theme, I remember going to Villawood some years ago to visit some people incarcerated there (they were pretty well all released eventually) and being treated appallingly by the guards. Maybe the contracts should also include something about them.

Ahhh, but of course, I forgot. Then it wouldn't be a deterrent, would it?
ErikH | 28 September 2011

I would thought that humanity would have learned, at least from recent history, that after Dachau, Buchenwald and Guantanamo that the detention of refugees et al, including those whose ethnicity/religious beliefs have been demonised is deemed barbaric and uncivilised. So what's this blessed country of ours doing?

By the way, I thought Mary and Joseph were refugees running away from a terrible regime? I'm sure that according to our contemporary rednecks they were 'illegal asylum seekers".
AlexNjoo | 28 September 2011

I believe this debate needs a much wider framework where our Government engages with the refugee authorities in each country, to invite those waiting in refugee camps to come to Australia and be part of our communities. This constant barrage of vilification and condemnation of anybody who has another solution doesn't help the people in need.
Amelia | 28 September 2011

And still so many don't understand that it is just an application form being filed.
Marilyn Shepherd | 28 September 2011

Oh, the irony! Remember John Howard manipulating public opinion via the damage to children in the "children overboard" days? Thank you, Lyn - I am one of many (but apparently not enough) who find the present system and the politics driving it as a shame upon our nation. Perhaps 30 years on there will be a parliamentary apology ...
james mcpherson | 29 September 2011

This firsthand account of life in Australian institutions brings deep shame and anger. Setting aside the descriptions of life inside for asylum seekers,two sentences here stab and startle anyone with conscience or compassion: 'Psychologists are used to mask and deny the systemic damage to the hearts, minds and souls of vulnerable people.' and: 'Detainees hover in limbo, their fate manipulated for the political ends of the government of the day.' Has either side of Parliament considered that the damage received as a result of detention could make people less equipped to live as Australian citizens after their time in detention than they were on arrival? And what of the damage to Australians who work in detention centres? Does any good come out of this system which seems to return us to the attitudes prevalent here in 1788? If it does no good then why do we have it? Also, Do Julia and Tony read Eureka Street?
Anne | 29 September 2011

Mandatory detention is an appalling disgrace because of the trauma it causes to all detainees, especially children. That our Government persists with it in our name despite all this is a cause of deep humiliation and frustration. We need to petition the Government for change to a humane, compassionate system for dealing with the boat asylum seekers, and to seek all means at our disposal to pressure the Government along these lines. These people are not illegal immigrants. They are people seeking asylum in Australia. Most of them are granted refugee status. None of them as far as I know, have been found to be terrorists. What threat can they possibly be to the integrity of our borders? They are not invaders, and their numbers are relatively small compared to our total intake of migrants.
Tony Santospirito | 06 October 2011

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