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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Lyn. E. Bender


To whom it May Concern,

I am a psychologist,

currently registered to practice in Victoria and South Australia. Australian

Correctional Management employed me as a psychologist, from March 7th

to April 16th. 20002

My role was that

of psychologist at Woomera Detention Centre. My duties included crisis

responding, counselling debriefing and psychological support for detainees.

During my six weeks

at Woomera I spent on average of 50 to 60 hours per week, on duty. The

greatest part of this time was spent listening to and assisting detainees

with distress depression anxiety trauma. Suicidal ideation and acts of

self-harm,. were common and constant features of the detainees concerns.

Another aspect of

my work at Woomera involved interaction and consultation with the medical

staff, detention management and staff, and DIMIA management and staff.

My work was located

at the medical center, in the compounds, and at various locations in the

Woomera Centre. I also visited detainees who were patients at the Woomera

Community Hospital, and children on site of the school at Woomera used

for detainees.

I also attended various

meetings of the Detention and Health staff and had informal and formal

conversation with Centre management, DIMA management, officers and other



Detention Centre Environment

My observations:

In my daily duties

I encountered the following:

  • Daily acts of

    self-harm,[ by adults and children] that included cutting, attempted

    hanging, ingestion of shampoo, mutilation on the razor wire and hunger


  • Daily acts of

    distress that included, hysterical uncontrolled wailing and crying,

    smashing of windows and verbal threats by and to staff and detainees.

  • Detainees being

    forcibly physically restrained.

  • Chronic complaints

    from a majority of detainees of symptoms consistent with a diagnosis

    of acute traumatic stress,[e.g. sleep disturbance , hyper vigilance

    , eating disturbance, suicidal ideation, hopelessness and despair. The

    severity and intensity were varied but consistently present in all detainees

    that I interviewed.

  • Somatisation;

    this involves body pain and disturbance of body function that in the

    broad community would be regarded as symptoms of stress. For example,

    chronic headache, frequent digestive upset, muscular-skeletal pain.

  • Verbal expressions

    of intense despair and hopelessness and an obsessive fear about the


  • Extreme boredom
  • This environment

    was pervasively apparent, visibly, emotionally, and intrinsically part

    of everyday interactions.

  • Absence of adequate

    play areas, and stimulation of toys or daily normal lifestyle events,

    for children to learn and develop.

It would be impossible

to shield or protect children from its impact


Pernicious and Abusive Environment

In my view the environment

that I observed was a systemically destructive of the mental well being

of the detainees, particularly children. I draw this conclusion from the


1. First and

foremost the high prevalence of self harm behaviors and depression.

This was far greater than in the normal community. For example from 40

to 60 detainees were on special observation for self harm.{ H.R.A.T.-

high risk assessment team}This was for a population of detainees of around

300. When I first arrived the Numbers of detainees were over 500 , but

these reduced to 300.

2. High incidence

of previous trauma and grief. All detainees reported fear of return

to the country from which they had fled. Some reported that they had suffered

incarceration and torture; others reported that they had witnessed war

atrocities including murder of family and threats to family. Many reported

extreme fears about the safety of family. This was often coupled with

not being able to contact or having no knowledge about the whereabouts

of their family.

3. Lack of information

and uncertainty about processes. The processing for VISAS was a depersonalized

and confusing experience for the detainees. They would wait for extended

periods with little or no information about the progress of their application.

The success or failure of other detainee's application increased their

confusion and anxiety. Some members of a family had been granted a VISA

while others were refused. Detainees found the experience of reporting

their traumatic experiences retraumatising Language difficulties and difficulty

in obtaining documents increased the confusion.

4. Excessive

periods in detention. Even detainees accepted as refugees by the first

application were held in detention for many months, some for 9 to 11 months.

Other detainee's applications took such a long time to process that they

were told that the application had failed on the grounds of political

change. This meant that in essence they might still qualify as refugees

but that further data now needed to be brought forward. This could mean

several months of waiting for the RRT and more time for the result and

for a VISA. There was a constant cycle of waiting and acceptance or rejection.

This meant that distraction was impossible. Self-harm and distress were

intensified at these times.

5. Cultural insensitivity.

Groups such as John The Baptist believers [mostly from Iran] were stigmatized

and taunted by other groups in the Detention Centre While some officers

sincerely and helpfully responded to detainees other .officers and staff

displayed a lack of understanding towards detainees. For example during

one religious ceremony an officer said in response to my query "oh

that is just some stupid mourning thing they do". I noted an officer

going through the clothes of a Muslim woman while her husband objected.

The officer ignored his concern. There was a pervasive attribution of

the distress that they exhibited as being due to "their culture"

6. Retraumatising

experiences. The stressful features of detention mirrored and re-enacted

some of the original traumatic experiences of the detainees.

  • Open ended detention
  • Legal processes

    that seemed capricious and unclear

  • Separation from

    family and friends [eg Some.fathers were separated from wives and children]

  • Forcible physical

    restraint and isolation in the Observation rooms.

  • Being seen as

    inferior and less worthy and denied rights

  • People 'disappearing'

    overnight when granted their VISA and not being able to say goodbye


  • Not knowing where

    they would go or how they would survive when released

  • The environment

    was experienced as punishing and blaming them for their desperate circumstances

  • Intense fear and

    despair about the emotional safety of the children in detention

  • Little or no perceived

    control over the present past or future,

  • Terror of return

    to their homeland and a repeat of the past traumas

  • Perceived threat

    to life as a result of VISA rejection.

  • Hypervigilence

    for the threat of suicide in others.

  • Suicide attempts

    of family.

  • Riots
  • Special riot security


  • Lack of recognition

    or rewards for compliance.

  • Perceived invalidation

    of their past experience or identity

7. Prison culture

that was a system suited to punishment of offenders. Staff and systems

were basically geared to operating a high security prison . The systems

focused on security not on health agendas. ACM training was 6 weeks for

officers. This was claimed to include cross cultural sensitization and

management of detainees. However the physical structure of the center,

with high security fences, razor wire restricted access and limited access

promote a culture of incarceration amongst detainees and staff.

8. Incarceration

Fatigue. Detainees frequently complained of a chronic state of tiredness

and fatigue that they ascribed to being at Woomera. They ruminated on

and spoke of a longing for greenery trees and flowers. On rare excursions

to Woomera township they referred to joy in being able to not see fences

and to touch grass. The children loved school "because there are

no fences" Other adults expressed despair that they may never leave

Woomera.This was particularly so for detainees who feared return to a

repressive regime. Those from Iran could not be involuntarily repatriated

and were afraid to return. Many complained about the monotony and sameness

of the environment and the isolation of the location. The center felt

"unreal" to many who felt dislocated and disoriented

9. Contagion of

despair. In an environment where a majority of people are distressed

or traumatized or depressed and where there is rampant self-harm; distress

and despair are highly contagious. Detainees also became concerned and

worried about the safety of fellow detainees and family members. In this

environment family units visibly broke down under the combined distress

of family members. In attempting to support each other each collapsed

further. Suicidality is also highly contagions

10. Lack of constructive

activity. Programs were sporadic and tokenistic Many detainees were

skilled or had enjoyed professional occupations in their country of origin

The program and work were often demeaning. For example a doctor from Afghanistan

was washing staff cars. A teacher had garbage duties. Despite this jobs

were coveted prized and sought after. Many detainees stated that it helped

them manage and nor think about their worries if they had something to

do. They were paid a dollar per day. Children were keen to go to school

despite a limited curriculum and lack of equipment.

11. Overstressed

staff. Many staff worked long hours, sometimes doing extended or double

shifts. Some expressed distress at the way detainees were treated. There

was a high turnover of psychological staff. Many staff were hostile to

and blaming of, the detainees This often extended to the children


The detention environment

was emotionally stressful and mentally destructive for all detainees.

This created an environment where adults were unable to create a safe

caring family space. Many parents and adults tried to care for their children

and to protect them. This was a common element of their distress. The

Detention Centre was particularly damaging to children and to families.

The environment was punitive penal and depriving of autonomy and stimulation.

Added to this detainees had frequently experienced prior trauma. Distress

and self-harm and talk of suicide were daily enacted Incarceration was

prolonged and uncertain .In these circumstances emotional breakdown is

inevitable. I observed what could be termed "Incarceration Fatigue"

or "Detention Syndrome" which was a combination of acute traumatic

stress symptoms and despair

Lyn Bender



Updated 9 January 2003.