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
These factors may
occur in adult and child detainees, and secondarily in their carers. Manifestations
may be acute or delayed.
FACTORS AMONG REFUGEES
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
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.
THE WIDER COMMUNITY
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
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.
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.
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
Updated 9 January 2003.