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Stateless and the inhumanity of detention



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. 

Barbed wire fence against blue sky (Getty images/Xinzheng)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 the slow leaching of brightness from the eye of people who have survived many threats to their lives and safety. Hope is eroded by forced inactivity, the daily humiliations of having to beg for human rights that are rewritten as privileges, and the frustration of lack of progress in their claim for protection. In time the eyes grow dull and hollow, a sign of the mental illness that may develop.

In drama, the torture of enduring pain can be represented only through horrifying single events and by extreme reactions. This can misrepresent the relationships between people locked up and those responsible for locking them up. These are more subtle than the violence and barely concealed racism displayed by psychopathic guards depicted in Stateless. Officers are generally ordinary people, but living in a world in which emotional detachment and attention to regulation are the only way to survive. Their demeanour is the product of a policy that inflicts suffering on detainees in order to deter others, a morally corrupt system that taints all it touches, especially the relationships between people.


'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 the slow leaching of brightness from the eye of people who have survived many threats to their lives and safety.'


Behrouz Bouchani’s account of his ordeal on Manus Island, No Friend but the Mountains, explores in great detail this dehumanising process at work. In Stateless, it is made personal in the descent into moral darkness of the new department officer sent to the centre.

The series depicts the world of asylum seekers shortly after the boats were stopped and before Manus Island was functioning. In some ways that was a more human, if less predictable, world than is life in detention today. Information flowed much more freely, the process was less militarised, the rule of law was more respected, and conditions were less controlled.

Today the number of people held in Australian detention centres is smaller than depicted on Stateless. Communication between people detained is more regulated, however, and the details of their lives from receiving visitors and gifts to the furniture and fittings are governed by an obsessive attention to safety and security. The resultant regime is experienced as humiliating and petty. Inefficient and underfunded assessment procedures means that people are detained for longer. The militarisation of the department, too, means that information is controlled and the public kept uninformed. Government ministers can now sleep undisturbed.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Barbed wire fence against blue sky (Getty images/Xinzheng)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Stateless, ABC



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Existing comments

Thanks Andy. I agree that Stateless is totally confronting because it is so close to the bone. The current corona virus crisis must surely elicit some response from the government to stop having people detained in very close contact and in closed environments. Their general health is precarious and they are totally confused. They are watching all the measures being taken to secure the safety of people in the community with no reference to themselves. Is this a crossroad where a level of humanity could be called upon to free those detained in such punitive circumstances?

Brigid Arthur | 19 March 2020  

Such an excellent review of a fine and harrowing program. Thank you Andrew. The program is riveting in its portrayal of the terrible truth of what we have allowed to keep us "safe". I agree that dramatisation has its risks, but at the same time the skill of the writers of this program is shown brilliantly in the summarising of counter arguments within dialogue, even just between two characters. For sure, "officers are generally ordinary people" but as I watched the behaviour of the cruel female guard I was reminded that Ilse Koch, the notorious Nazi concentration guard, was not born the depraved sadist that she turned out to be. Winton Higgins has a fine book "Journey into Darkness" where he ponders, in the context of the Australian asylum seeker policy, how the high culture of Germany could descend to what it became. Another thought in relation to "Stateless" is no wonder the government is trying to cut the ABC off at the knees. Full marks to all responsible for this confronting program.

Susan Connelly | 19 March 2020  

Thank you Andrew for a most thought provoking article. For myself, I have been unable to watch Stateless, fearing it would drag me down mentally - to what end? I have donated and given support to refugee organisations and am still left wondering how a government such as ours can countenance such inhumanity. I can only think that in the minds of those ultimately responsible- our politicians - that there is some psychological mechanism by which they can just conveniently turn off any disturbing thoughts, or , God forbid, any sense of guilt. I am not a psychologist, but their behaviour seems almost sociopathic to me. Bouchani's book said it all.

Henri | 19 March 2020  

It is interesting, Andy, reading your most recent articles in Eureka Street, you look into the Hearts of Darkness which have existed and still exist in human society, where genuine humanity should have existed but didn't. There are genuine humane people in Stateless but many are deeply morally conflicted, sometimes even the brutal Maori female guard, who may not know it. The nun is definitely humane. It is fiction but on the level of high drama, almost like a Medieval Passion Play.

Edward Fido | 19 March 2020  

A fine review of an excellent ABC production. Having visited the Detention Centre in Port Hedland on several days in 2004 I was immediately captured by the scenes portrayed on Stateless. I found the humanity of those detained trammelled upon in daily minute ways that had an effect like a dripping tap that cannot be turned off. As a visitor I was subjected to some mindless procedures with which I complied in order to gain entry. My admiration was for a Catholic Nun who visited regularly to teach the women English. In fact her presence was a morale booster and her method of teaching English centred around writing and reading recipes as the women were empowered to cook and feel that they had something worthwhile to do. As for the guards all I can say is that they were a mixed bunch. One who was filling in - a prison officer from NSW if my memory is correct - was apologetic about the stupidity of using “invisible markers” on my wrist when there were no “readers” for this technology available! As Andrew has remarked, I feel somewhat guilty that my advocacy over the years has apparently brought about no change to this immoral, illegal treatment of those seeking asylum in Australia. Some detainees have thanked me for showing solidarity with them but that is cold comfort for one who would like to see an end to this iniquitous system.

Ern Azzopardi | 19 March 2020  

Thanks Ern for fleshing out the real world situation from which 'Stateless' was born. It is something most of us seem to wish to avoid knowing too much about. I would never have your guts to actually go to or protest at an immigration detention centre. These days many of them are conveniently offshore, so 'out of sight, out of mind' seems to apply. I think there is a need to find out whether those seeking asylum in this country are genuine and would subscribe to our democratic values. There are certainly those who talked their way through the system, such as the convicted terrorist plotter Abdul Nacer Benbrika. He shouldn't have been accepted. There are others, like the Iraqi refugee surgeon, Munjed Al Muderis, who were genuine and a credit to this country. There is absolutely no need to keep anyone in the sort of brutal, degrading and dehumanising conditions portrayed in the series and based on real life. That degrades us. It also eats away at people's moral consciousnesses. Sometimes slowly and insidiously. The world has always been an amoral one. Jesus' example was to lead a moral life in it. Others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Beyers Naude, followed in his footsteps. So did the nun. It doesn't need a grand sacrificial gesture to show solidarity.

Edward Fido | 20 March 2020  

Although I admire Edward Fido's contributions to ES, he is mistaken in describing 'Stateless' as a work of fiction, akin to a Medieval Passion Play. The production is a distillation of many facts, including the actual experience of Cornelia Rau, who suffered mental illness and loss of her identity between 2004-5. Ms Rau was detained in Brisbane and, later, at the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. Her's isn't the only instance of bureaucratic bungling. In 2001 Vivian Alvarez Solon, an Australian citizen of sound mind, was deported by Queensland Police under orders of Australian Immigration, to the Philippines, where her Parish Priest, Fr Mike Duffin, discovered the horrendous injustice that had been done to her. It took four years to correct this, with Immigration Minister Vanstone placing the blame on the Filipino authorities for not identifying where Ms Solon lived and Prime Minister Howard describing it as 'unfortunate'. I want here to also commend those, like Julian Burnside, with the courage and stick-at-it-ness to never give up, even in the face of Kafkaesque goal-post shifting of the most devious kind, all under the pretext of accountability to an Australian public whose conscience is hopefully pricked by these harrowing portrayals.

Michael Furtado | 21 March 2020  

My stance, Michael Furtado, is that Stateless is a work of fiction based on fact. So much great art is. The artist takes his or her raw material and turns it into something universal and all encompassing. Stateless is not just about discussing the Rau case or any similar discrete case, callous and tragic as they were, but presenting a whole canvas, just as Shakespeare did in his tragedies. There may, or may not, have been a real King Lear, but the play is a real tragedy, based on real evil. Stateless is not just another 4 Corners program. Because it is not 'fact' interested politicians and others don't get the chance to jump up and down and claim it's simply 'not true'. During the dreadful days of apartheid the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach and plays of Athol Fugard, fiction drawing attention to appalling fact, deeply impacted on readers and viewers. They were banned. One of the good things about contemporary Australia is that works such as Stateless are not banned.

Edward Fido | 23 March 2020  

Fr Andrew, I fear you are a prophet crying in the wilderness. Whereas they used to abjure the clergy to stay out of politics, when justice is swept under the threadbare Australian social carpet, politics rises in the religious agenda. And so it should. When King wrote his letter from Birmingham while in goal for peaceful protest against the white shopkeepers rascict signs forbidding black people to enter, civil rights were preached from the pulpit. Your fear that your protests have gone unheeded are untrue. But how to change the status quo is the question? The detainees are gagged and bound while the neo Nazi guards enjoy their cigarettes. The boat people are scapegoated for their mode of travel while nothing is done about student and travel visa overstays that melt into the social fabric. Civil rights needs to come to the forefront of the church's agenda. Equal rights for women, employment opportunities for our indigenous folk. Keeping our manufacturing within Australia. Banning the social media giants who pay no tax. Removing Hillsong as the Canberra endorsed religion of choice because in reality it is a personality cult for the successors of its tainted founder. Fr Andrew, stick to your dream.

Francis Armstrong | 23 March 2020  

I met Cornelia with Bob Ellis at a festival of Ideas in Adelaide, she is charming, intelligent, very beautiful up close and this series just broke me. The escaped family was of course based on the Bakhtiyari family whose lives were destroyed before they were illegally deported in the dead of night to the wrong country on fake papers which I received under FOI 3 weeks later and were the basis of the first chapter of the book Following them Home and the documentary The Man who Jumped, the images of Mazhars's wounds were taken by ACM staff. The man whose wife and kids died on SIEVX was a true story, these stories were taken from the Woomera files which ABC have had since 2003 when they made About Woomera.. I has my 50th birthday with Deb Whitmont and broke the story of Fatima Erfani. I couldn't bear this series and the shocking thing is those days were actually kinder than now.

Marilyn | 07 April 2020  

Edward the stories in Stateless are all 100% fact, I have had the Woomera files they were based on since 2002, I printed them and catalogued them for research, they were used by 4 Corners, SBS for the Man who Jumped, I can name the people the stories revolved around very easily.

Marilyn | 07 April 2020  

Father Andrew, please keep writing your excellent articles. I did not watch Stateless but have just finished reading Behrouz Bouchani's book. It made part of me ashamed to be Australian.

John Casey | 09 April 2020  

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