Tag Archives: Woomera

Casualties of “Border Protection”

3 Dec

 

Operation Soverereign BordersIt ought not to surprise anyone that naval personnel are vulnerable to post traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of implementing the ALP and LNP governments’ asylum seeker policies.

This investigative report by the ABC describes in detail what sailors are required to do in so-called “border protection” actions.

Over a decade ago I interviewed staff at the Woomera and Baxter Detention Centres. Many of them described the same symptoms of PTSD as do the naval personnel interviewed by the ABC. Those staff were, like the navy, caught up in a culture of deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers that first requires a dehumanisation of the self, in order to be implemented to the satisfaction of political masters in Canberra.

Both major parties have long known that the best way to calm an outcry about waterborne asylum seekers  is to hide them away from the public gaze, criminalise their perfectly legal right to come to this country by boat, and if possible never allow them to be seen as human. One sailor explained that the only way he could continue his work was to think of the asylum seekers as numbers, evidence that these dehumanising tactics work. Their consequences, however, manifest in both victim and perpetrator as post traumatic stress that can cripple a life and destroy a spirit.

Political masters are protected from the front-line traumas that are a direct consequence of their self-serving decisions, but in reality the blood both real and metaphorical of asylum seekers and the men and women who are directly involved with them, is on politicians’ hands and they cannot clean it off. The sight of MPs visiting workplaces is a common one, perhaps PM Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison might spend a day or two attempting to haul bodies from the sea and experiencing the horror of finding their hands full of drowned human flesh that has separated from drowned human bones.

One of the sailors interviewed expressed the opinion that current secrecy surrounding “Operation Sovereign Borders” exacerbates the difficulties and traumas experienced by those charged with its front-line implementation. The potential danger of secrecy is well-known to anyone who’s worked in mental health. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that the combination of the work they are called upon to do combined with the strict secrecy surrounding it, is likely to result in traumatic stress.

It’s outrageous that any government should demand its employees endure such extreme working conditions outside of war (despite what Morrison has claimed we are not at war with people smugglers, though many of us are at war with budgie smugglers) and purely to win that government votes. I can’t forget that the trauma endured by asylum seekers remains largely unacknowledged, is exacerbated by the continuation of dehumanisation after they’ve been despatched to off-shore detention centres, and ongoing uncertainty about their futures.

While a culture of dehumanisation adversely effects everyone involved, at least naval personnel and other staff have some hope of escape from their situations, and treatment.

Obviously the answer is for politicians to cease their barbaric practices and treat both their employees and the asylum seekers with at least a modicum of concern. Politicians are destroying people, literally, in their pursuit of power. Is it any wonder so many of us despise them?

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From Woomera to Manus: 12 years of state brutality in exchange for votes

2 May

I have beside me on my desk the transcript of ABC Four Corners, May 19 2003. This is the link to ABC Four Corners, April 29 2013

The transcript I’m currently reading is that of reporter Debbie Whitmont’s investigation into the secrecy surrounding the conditions at the Woomera Detention Centre.

Whitmont is also the reporter on the April 29 programme, an investigation into the secrecy and the conditions at the Manus Island Detention Centre.

Excerpts, 2003 transcript

80% of those detained [in Woomera] were found to be genuine refugees and given temporary visas. Many who worked at the centre say they were pressured to stay silent about what they saw and did. It is only now that the full story is starting to be told.

Alley Crace, Welfare Officer [at Woomera] 1999-2001: Just basically, I see the compound all the time. I see hundreds and hundreds of people begging and crying, and I see people dehydrating in the sun. I see people with sewn lips and buried in the ground, cause that’s what they did. I see people slashed up and cut their throats and their arms.

Phillip Ruddock, Minister for Immigration (Howard Government): It is not a holiday camp nor should it be seen as one.

After a riot at Woomera, detainees were put in lock down. Psychiatric nurse Peter Ostarek-Gammon, who worked at Woomera during 2000-2001 and witnessed the aftermath of the riot:

Yeah, well, there was a lot of anger from the officers and the management, a lot of anger directed towards the detainees. In fact, some of them were not just locked into their dongas, but they were drilled in. The doors were drilled closed. I did see that, yeah. Another nurse and myself actually had to visit one of those guys one day and they had to get an electric drill to open the cabin. 

Debbie Whitmont: Four Corners has obtained the computer records of thousands of official reports written by Australian Correctional Management (ACM) [who ran the centre at the time] and given daily to the Department of Immigration. They document the relentlessness of hundreds and hundreds of self-harms and suicide attempts. Like this boy, who smashed his own head with a rock. And this fourteen-year-old girl who saw him do it cut herself and told staff she was frustrated with the Department of Immigration.

After repeated attempts by staff to assist and protect a 12 year-old Iranian boy who was being sexually assaulted, Alley Crace tells Whitmont:

At that stage, I was told that because the people had no identity and that they weren’t actual people in Australia, there was no need, or necessities to report to Family and Community Services – as in FACS.

During the time of the Four Corners investigation, some detainees were on a hunger strike. Whitmont spoke to one of them:

He tries to explain that the detainees have nothing left to use but their bodies to plead their desperation.

Man: We are crying, we are screaming. And we are all “What to do?” We have nothing. This is what you want? This is Australia say to us? Please help us and listen as we are suffering inside. We don’t want to make any rampage. We don’t want any things to do this. (Sobs) We all came from bad condition. We want help.

Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 May, 2003

Children locked up in Australia’s immigration centres have the highest rate of mental illness ever recorded in modern medical literature, according to a new study. 

The study found each of the 20 children surveyed had at least one psychiatric illness with more than half suffering major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder…

Dr Zachary Steel, [from the University of NSW’s School of Psychiatry] said the findings showed detention centre were not the place for children. 

The above events took place during the Coalition government of John Howard. Since then, we’ve had a change of government. Now identical events are taking place under the Labor government of Julia Gillard, this time off-shore, more secretly and less accessibly.

Politicians of both major parties have continued to brutalise, scapegoat  and illegally detain, in shocking conditions, those who have arrived here by boat, requesting asylum.

Communicate with your local member and let her or him know this is unacceptable to you. The only way this will change is if politicians believe there are more votes in behaving humanely, than there are in brutally abusing arrivals.

This is what it boils down to. Votes. This is a very frightening comment on the type of people who run this country, no matter what their political allegiance.

On Christmas Island

21 Mar
Topographic map in French of Christmas Island ...

Christmas Island

Imagine what it’s like living on Christmas Island right now.

In a matter of days, the picturesque tropical island community has gone from a peaceful piece of paradise where nobody bothered much about locking their cars and doors, to a place where police are advising locals to lock their houses and make sure they take the keys out of the ignition.

Some Christmas Island residents are afraid of the 10 – 20 asylum seekers who are unaccounted for after the days of riots at the Detention Centre. Others are disturbed by the situation, but aren’t as concerned for their personal safety.

Locals have been warning the government that trouble was ahead for months, after the crowded Detention Centre continued to accept new boat arrivals. The Centre now houses some three times more asylum seekers than it was designed to contain.

Christmas Island residents called on the government to reduce the numbers before things went pear-shaped. They wrote letters predicting riots. They’ve been trying to get the government to listen to them for nearly two years.

All to no avail.

In a tribute to the Australian spirit of the fair go, many members of the Christmas Island community express on-going support and sympathy for asylum seekers. This was particularly apparent last December with the tragic boat sinking and loss of life on the island’s coast, when locals tied to drag asylum seekers out of the water, and had to watch as many, including children and babies, were lost.

Hatred and antipathy towards asylum seekers really does seem to originate in places where nobody’s ever seen one, bearing out the belief that once we see the human face of the refugee, we are less likely to have sneering rejection as our default position.

Listening to Christmas Island locals, it’s clear many of them blame the government, not the asylum seekers. They understand the stupidity of over crowding young men, giving them nothing to do with their days, and keeping them in indefinite uncertainty about their future.

This is what the Howard government did at Woomera Detention Centre and look what happened. Riots, water cannon, self harm, even by children, and a legacy of post traumatic stress for detainees and many of the staff who worked there.

They did it at Baxter Detention Centre and look what happened. Exactly the same, without the water cannon.

Now at Christmas Island we’re using tear gas and something called “bean bag” bullets. “Bean bag” bullets? Is that a cuddly name designed to make them sound better?

This Labor government has learned nothing from the consequences of the Howard government’s policies. They’ve gone right ahead and done exactly the same things in their management of Detention Centres.

Nobody wins. Not the asylum seekers, not the residents of Christmas Island, not the workers at the centres, nobody. Especially not the government because  everybody gets to see how incapable they are of handling what should not be such a challenging situation if approached with a bit of common sense.

Perhaps those shock jocks like Chris Smith,of the guess how many dead asylum seekers fame get a retributory thrill, and the perhaps the voters who’ve never met a refugee but despise them anyway and want them anywhere but here, even at the bottom of the sea, feel gratified.

And of course the Opposition’s Scott Morrison has more ammunition, because that’s all refugees are to him.

On Christmas Island, locals who helped as best they could when the boat sank and the people drowned, are working hard to keep their lives and their children’s lives as normal as possible in the circumstances. There’ll be some of them who’ll be left traumatised by what they’ve seen on their island home. Their tourism figures are probably going to drop as well.

But do Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen give a stuff about any of this?

It’s an island, Gillard says. There’s nowhere for escaped asylum seekers to go.

Well, hello, PM – there’s actually a community on that island. It isn’t terra nullius.

Local resident Patsy Pine broke down in tears when interviewed. ‘The government doesn’t give a damn about us.” she said.

And who can argue with that sentiment?

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