Rioting and deaths in detention: anyone could see that coming so why don’t the politicians?

30 Mar
A bunch of Razor Wire atop a chain link fence

Image via Wikipedia

Guest blog today by Dr Stewart Hase

A Refugee Crisis in the Camps: Now Who Could Have Predicted That?

The media treat it as something of a surprise that the ungrateful inmates of our refugee camps are rioting and committing suicide. But it does make for great headlines and, let’s face it, that’s mainstream journalism these days: the ‘gotcha’ rather than real investigation. Well, it is no surprise to psychologists who, had government taken the time to seek some good advice, could have easily predicted these events. In fact, if a research psychologist had wanted to design an experiment confirming the negative impact of incarcerating people, they could have done no better than the politicians and bureaucrats with the fiasco they have invented. The experiment has it all: desperate people; close confinement; razor wire; remote locations; removal of dignity an extended but variable process that engenders hopelessness; an unnatural existence; and overcrowding.

It has been long known in psychology that even relatively innocuous forms of incarceration cause psychological problems: an abnormal situation creates abnormal behaviour in and of itself. We know that guards become abusive towards inmates when they are in this unique position of power. The abuse of the powerless is not restricted to psychopaths or other similarly inadequate personalities. Mr and Mrs Average are quite capable of abnormal cruelty when given the opportunity. We see this in wartime, concentration camps, prisons and the now defunct (thankfully) psychiatric hospitals of the first half of the twentieth-century.

Any first year psychology student knows that you cannot expect people to behave normally when they are placed in abnormal situations. And we could expect people to riot when they are placed in a threatening situation. We can expect people to kill themselves or develop psychoses when their disbelief turns to despair turns to hopelessness. We can expect to see children rapidly wither on the vine when normality is stripped from them: they have few defences to protect themselves.

Successive Australian governments have failed the compassion test, as have we, the Australian people for not urging a humanitarian approach to this problem. This does not mean allowing illegal entry to our country. It does not mean opening our doors. But it does mean having a process for dealing with the problem that is in keeping with the mores of a twenty-first century civil society rather than those of the dark ages: a society that bases its decisions on evidence rather than false and convenient belief. I wonder if we are ready yet and is there a politician out there that is prepared to rise above the sorcery that is popularism?

Dr Stewart Hase


Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma ofPsychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at

4 Responses to “Rioting and deaths in detention: anyone could see that coming so why don’t the politicians?”

  1. gerard oosterman March 30, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    The articles on detention and the horrific events unfolding from detention just keep on coming.

    It has become a political football game under Gillard the same as it was with Howard.


  2. PAUL WALTER March 30, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    The ABC aticle is to thepoint. The government is “repeating the mistakes” of the prevous government, but we learn later in the article that the Dept of Immigration, “refused to comment”.
    I doubt if it’s a mistake, at least in the sense of something done accidentally. Rather the dept has won its battle to win the government over to Howardist “policy”after a brief flirtation with a more enlightened approach early in Rudd’s prime minister ship, with Evans.
    The other factor in the retreat is the incessant and unscrupulous attack from the Opposition in Canberra- it’s made Labor’s ability to act problematic for them, so Labor has reverted to
    “small target”. The result has been a frustrated Abbott alighting on the Carbon tax, instead, as a platform to commence a populist campaign carried out by tabloid media, to find some traction for clawback somewhere in the electorate, for the opposition.
    Were Abbott to back off, the two majors could turn to some sort of rational consensus. But clearly Gillard is signalling she’lll stay doggo while Abbott still holds the high political terrain, with the political equivalent to a sniper’s rifle. And I think I understand her attitude- if they’d lay off, some thing less lunatic could emerge.
    If Abbott is a real Christian, as he boasts, won’t incidents like the harrowing death of the young fellow at Curtin, strike at the heart of his belief?
    Not so far, it seems. I know that if I were in his shoes, I’d be troubled.
    The refugee row seems to have much to do with the lowest common denominator as determinant for political action in our country, rather than rationality, let alone a humanitarian or altruistic impulse.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

      And today the Gillard government has to accept that East Timor won’t co operate with off shore detention centre – not that I thought that was going to happen for a minute.
      Why the hell we can’t just treat the asylum seekers decently, is beyond me. Even if you are someone who thinks they’ve done something wrong, this horrible need to treat them as badly as possible is not edifying. It says far more about some Australians than it says about any asylum seeker. Pauline Wannabes.


  3. gerard oosterman March 30, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    The problem is minuscule, the numbers are minuscule. Both Liberal and Labor have dug holes for themselves by allowing that issue to become a domestic one.
    Half the voters are in a frenzy, convinced hordes of refugees will overrun Australia and take over.
    The only way is to do this whole processing on land and quickly. I’m afraid Julia will just have to bite the sour apple and do it, irrespective of backlash..
    It’s the only way.


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