Best of 2011: 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



submit a comment

Existing comments

This article, tragic and enlightening, sets out what most people have believed to be happening in our refugee prison centres. We have moved from being a country of asylum and 'a fair go" to a country of punishment and "this'll show you, for coming here". Thank you Lyn.
Caroline Storm | 10 January 2012

Some how we have made the word 'asylum' a negative word when it is meant to be about safety and protection. We punish people for wanting a better life, when we should be embracing them as they become valuable members of the Australian community.
Lesley Wilkinson | 10 January 2012

Watch "The Man who Jumped' on SBS on 24 January at 9.30 and see the consequences for denial of family reunion that the likes of Greg Sheridan and Abbott are saying are good. Remember the man who jumped off the fence on Australia day 10 years ago> Watch and weep.
Marilyn Shepherd | 10 January 2012

Our treatment of those who come here fleeing persecution is a test of our hospitality, indeed our humanity. We have been judged to fail both tests. Why? Is it that we have bad people in government? Perhaps, but one team are apparently no better than the other. That is sobering for those who put their trust for a fairer world in the hands of politics and politicians. What we see is weak politics without leadership at the mercy of the most base element in the electorate. It is this base element that has the power to drive the agenda and we allow that to happen in the name of democracy. We are powerles and gutless. Let us call it for what it is. Apparently we are a small insecure xenophobic spoiled nation of bigots and bullies. When we face that and decide to grow in graciousness we will have earned the right to this magnificent land we call home.
graham patison | 11 January 2012

Thank you Lyn For such a clear assessment of the situation. I am increasingly ashamed to live in a country that countenances such continuing trauma to people who have already suffered. How can we put more pressure on the govt. to change its policy?
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 12 January 2012

There are some very disturbing claims in this article and no doubt Lyn will be able to substantiate them with detail in another article. That is what is needed. For example, what does it mean when she says that "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."??? I'm not naive, still I don't want to jump to conclusions either. If there is some criminal activity going on then expose it completely for God's sake!
Leonie | 13 January 2012

How did we ever go back to the era when the victim is the person punished for the crime? These people are fleeing violence and corruption, yet we lock them away and torture them psychologically, socially, culturally, spiritually... Once upon a time (and not so long ago) we locked up unmarried mothers and lunatics, we circumcised infertile women, and got a laugh out of the freaks in the mental asylum. We raise an eyebrow when women who have been raped are stoned to death, but are happy to put children behind bars. Australia, I am ashamed of you.
Philomena van Rijswijk | 14 January 2012

Thank you Lyn. These are challenges with which the Australian mind must grapple. We are a population easily manipulated at key times in the political cycle. Where our governments and oppositions become vulnerable they have shown themselves ever ready to make use of 'the other'. Decades of leadership have used fear of the outsider, demonising her/him to score political points. In taking what we are offered, we make 'the other' pay. We become complicit. Perhaps this is why some Australians are 'ashamed' of their citizenship.
ruthe | 17 January 2012

Thank you Lyn. Hoping for more whistleblowers in 2012 - people who can expose the damage being done every day to asylum seekers in immigration detention.There are also too many good Aussies already vicariously traumatised by what is required of them by an evil system. Work for a policy change!
Frederika Steen | 18 January 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up