Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Stateless and the inhumanity of detention

  • 18 March 2020
I've been watching Stateless, the ABC drama about Australia’s immigration detention system, with some reluctance. Not because it is poor, but because it is so powerful. 

Like the recent Total Control, which described the toxic intersection of Australian politics with the lives of Indigenous Australians, it describes the appalling reality behind the anodyne words of our policy towards the people it targets. The reluctance arose out of shame that in the last thirty years the treatment of people seeking protection in Australia had become more brutal and that my own efforts to help change public attitudes to refugees had been so unavailing.

Stateless invites us to see life in a remote detention centre. It shows the anger and despair of vulnerable people at being treated as criminals, at having to deal alone with the loss of families and of self-worth on their journey to Australia, at being unable to support families that they had left behind and at an opaque and arbitrary administrative system designed to frustrate every request.

The challenge faced by the creators of Stateless was to move past the apathy and denial which make people turn away in boredom or embarrassment when stories and images of non-Australian people in detention are presented. The dramatic device, based on an actual event, is to see the detention centre through the eyes of a generous and sensitive young father who is persuaded to work at the centre, and a blonde, blue-eyed white woman. We know through the backstory that she is a mentally ill Australian citizen dumped there by the same bureaucratic incuriosity that afflicts the people who seek protection. Her perspective and that of a reporter help the viewer break that barrier.

The series represents well the inherent tension between the Immigration Department’s desire to implement a policy of deterrence based on the suffering of the people detained and the concern of the staff to run an orderly institution. This expresses itself in characteristically Australian simultaneous censoriousness at all violation of regulations and the mockery of hypocrisy. Both are evident in scenes when the officers inform people of their non-functional rights and their enforced duties. It also shapes the actions of a new department officer sent to keep the centre off the front pages.

It is difficult for any dramatic representation of the effects of long-term detention to show how casual, everyday inhumanity interacts with time. The damage done by detention is measured by