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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Australasian Society for Traumatic

Stress Studies (ASTSS)

On behalf of ASTSS

I would like to thank you for inviting us to this meeting. Our Association

consists of professionals of different disciplines whose aim is to diagnose,

treat and prevent major stresses and traumas and their consequences. Some

of our members have expressed concern from their clinical experience that

traumatized detainees have been further traumatized, and as well, that

carers for detainees have been secondarily affected. The following is

a summary of their experiences. It is consistent with other scientific

knowledge in the field.


According to our

experience severe stress and trauma related illnesses in detainees may

manifest as a variety of illnesses and disorders. They include anxieties,

depressions, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and

social pathology such as violence, suicide, and physical and sexual abuse

among the detainees.

Factors which lead

to such illnesses and which may be usefully addressed are

  • threats to life

    and reliving them through current triggers and

  • threats to what

    makes life meaningful, which can be just as important as direct threat

    to life.

These factors may

occur in adult and child detainees, and secondarily in their carers. Manifestations

may be acute or delayed.


Threat to life

Both adult and child

refugees may have witnessed death and experienced threat to life, whether

their own, their families' or of others close to them. This may have occurred

in the context of persecution, incarceration, intimidation or humiliation.

Triggers to reliving

these experiences among detainees include incarceration, dehumanization

such as being known by numbers, humiliation, powerlessness, arbitrariness

and injustice. Such triggers can occur in adults and children.

Threat to meaning of life


This can be induced

by deprivation of basic human needs and preventing expression of basic

human characteristics. These include

  • lack of physical

    needs such as temperature control, digestible food, provision for excretory

    needs, hygiene, exercise of body and mind

  • lack of ability

    to provide care security hope and future for self and others especially

    children, family and friends in need

  • destruction of

    sense of self and identity, honour and self-esteem through humiliation

    and dehumanization, and denial of human rights (such as blocking communication

    with family and with the outside world, including the legal system).

  • Denial of natural

    sense of justice values, dignity and principles. These include not being

    granted sanctuary when pursued by killers, being judged as bad and criminal

    when one is innocent and victim, being lumped as one with perpetrators,

    being punished when not having harmed anyone, being made to suffer to

    deter others from attempting to save their lives by coming to Australia.

  • inability to maintain

    self-respect, express potentials, have sense of agency, being made helpless

    and powerless


Threats to the meaning

of life for children include

  • witnessing acts

    of violence and violent conflict with authority figures

  • neglect and lack

    of physical and emotional care, love and security

  • lack of adults

    to rely on, respect, model on, keep fair order

  • Seeing parents

    humiliated, made powerless and helpless, and unavailable because they

    are depressed irritable and otherwise disturbed

  • physical and sexual


  • being stigmatized

    as being different, identity not respected

  • lack of expectable

    routine, ability to play, learn and create


Stresses on carers

include isolation and physical conditions. However, more stressful is

having to participate in a system which they judge to be unjust. This

includes having to inflict suffering on people who they see as already

having suffered enough. This leads to a sense of themselves being unjustly

treated, having to change value systems and personalities such as becoming

callous. They feel intimidated by secrecy rules, compromised by having

to cover for colleagues who are more callous and even cruel, and being

part of a system which is concerned about making profits at the expense

of care for prisoners.

Carers suffer burnout,

secondary stress disorders and psychosomatic illnesses.


To the extent that

the community perceives detainees to be enemies, their incarceration causes

no more distress than the logical incarceration of enemy soldiers in prisoner

of war camps. However, should they come to perceive that most detainees

are traumatized refugees, they may well feel distress at having been unwittingly

made to be bystanders or even passive collaborators to inflicting suffering

on innocent victims. For some this has already led to conflicts about

what it means to be Australian. There may be loss of national pride and

resentment at having to say sorry.

Short Term and Long Term Consequences

Anxieties, depressions,

stress disorders, abuse, violence, suicide and other consequences may

be acute, delayed or chronic. It should not be thought that once released,

experiences while incarcerated suddenly evaporate. Rather, they become

part of a pool of experience. Sometimes disorders can erupt after release,

when immediate survival issues have receded.

Traumatic stress

consequence may also cascade over time whether incarcerated or after release.

For instance, powerless males who may seek some sort of sense of having

impact may abuse their families and other vulnerable people. This then

can cause spirals of consequences on both victims and themselves.

Children are particularly

vulnerable and amenable to be victimized. This may lead to long term and

chronic disorders and suffering. Alternately they may grow into callous,

cynical and inured human beings.


The Australasian

Society for Traumatic Stress Studies is concerned that a vicious cycle

of trauma of already traumatized people is causing undue suffering and

ill health currently and will continue to do so in the future. Many of

the factors elaborated above which cause such suffering and illnesses

can be addressed satisfactorily and hence prevent the cycle of suffering

and illness. Such prevention may lead to grateful, rather than ill and

embittered citizens.


Updated 9 January 2003.