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The politics of punishment, and bi-partisan denial

By Paul Stevenson - posted Friday, 19 August 2016

I want to give some reflections on my work and experience as a trauma psychologist in Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres, and some reflections on what has happened since I publicly spoke out about this. 

In doing so, I am presenting a perspective from an action research perspective.  Action research is sometimes criticised in that the researcher is too close to the events.  My view, however, is that action research provides a person with special authority, as the researcher is an eye-witness to the events that happen.

The first of my reflections is that the media presentations don’t reveal the humanity and the bravery of those detained.  Often this humanity is revealed in everyday things, such as the sense of humour in the midst of adversity. And the media presentations also don’t reveal the de-humanizing nature of detention, despite the courage of those detained.  I assert that every day in the detention centres is de-humanizing.  In my four decades of work, this is the worst psychological abuse of individuals I have seen.


The second of my reflections is that one of the fundamental problems with Australia’s use of detention of asylum seekers is the lack of transparency.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to reach the detention centres, and difficult for the truth to become known. 

It needs to be mentioned that those limited current affairs TV reports which are broadcast tend to be stage-managed.  For instance, in the recent A Current Affair television report, the detainees were given new clothes prior to being visited by ACA crew, in order to make it look like they were being well looked after.  And everywhere the TV crew visited, they were accompanied by official minders, making sure that they only saw what the authorities wanted them to see.

There are exceptions to the failure of the media to report on what is happening.  I believe that Guardian Australia journalists Ben Doherty and David Marr have exhibited particular courage and tenacity in the reporting of what has been happening.  I like to think these two journalists deserve to be honoured as the Woodward and Bernstein of Australian journalism.

A third reflection I would make is that there is at times a problem with some refugee advocacy groups over-stating specific problems in specific situations. We need to make sure that what we are saying is accurate with regard to specific circumstances – otherwise we risk detracting from the credibility of those advocating for a more humane approach to asylum seeker policy.

The fourth reflection I would make is that there seems to be a philosophy of punishment which underpins asylum seeker policy in Australia.  Why do we seek to punish people?  This goes back to our fundamental psychological responses of fight or flight, in that we instinctively see others as a threat. We also have, however, the capacity to analyse our responses, to analyse why we are responding in a particular way, and to change those responses.

The need for punishment also comes back to a fundamental temptation to designate people as enemies.  If you designate others as enemies or potential enemies, then you subtly confirm your own authority, as the person to offer protection from those enemies.  We need to challenge this paradigm.


The fifth reflection I want to make is that there seems to be a culture of denial operating in Australia about our detention centres.  It was notable that much of the media attention I gained after speaking publicly to the Guardian Australia came from overseas sources.  I understand the Guardian story gained some 3 million online hits worldwide. By contrast, most of the Australian media tended not to be interested, or, more ominously, cancelled appointments for interview shortly before the media interview was about to commence.

The culture of denial obviously extends to our major political parties.  I believe that those involved in the major political parties are good people, although there is a culture of denial in the bi-partisan support for detention of asylum seekers.  It should be mentioned that the damage due to detention extends not merely to the detainees – there is immense pressure on those staffing the detention centres, as they have to manage the stress that inevitably comes out of the situation.

The illogicality of the current situation is that we are punishing the victims.  Imagine if we had a system where we locked up the rape victims.  This is similar to what is happening now. Government policy is to offer financial incentives for asylum-seekers to relocate to countries other than Australia, although clearly this is not working.

A sixth reflection is that perhaps the way to change this situation is to emphasize the financial cost of detention.  This currently costs Australia around $5 billion per annum – this at a time when there is concern about our national deficit.  If we can argue that there must be a more economical way of dealing with asylum seekers, then perhaps we may have a chance of changing policy.

In conclusion, my view is that, in the absence of knowing the right way to go in any situation, we cannot continue on the wrong way.  As a psychologist, if someone comes up to me, and it becomes evident that the person has an alcohol problem, then the first step is for the person to acknowledge that there is a problem.  In other words, the person must acknowledge he or she has an alcohol problem.  For Australia, we need to acknowledge we have a problem in the way we are treating asylum-seekers.  The denial must not be allowed to continue.

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This is an edited version of an address given by Paul Stevenson OAM to the Annual General Meeting of the United Nations Association of Australia (Queensland), held at Griffith University on Saturday, 30 July, 2016.

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About the Author

Paul Stevenson OAM is an Australian psychologist, with extensive international experience in the treatment of psychological trauma and in disaster intervention.

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