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Revelations of a detention centre spy

  • 28 September 2011

In 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