Interview 3: Professor Jon Jureidini

JJ 3

The most recent case I’ve been involved in where someone has been in immigration detention is actually a couple of years ago now, because there’s no detention centres in Adelaide anymore. So this was at Inverbrackie detention centre, which on the whole was probably the nicest detention centre in the system if you just look at the quality of accommodation that was available. And I saw a couple of children, one I think about 2 and the other about 6 or 7 who were extremely damaged by their experience both in transition to Australia but more worryingly by the experience of being in immigration detention. So in trying to understand how they got to be so damaged, one of the children, the smallest child, nearly fell overboard on the boat, so that was quite a traumatising experience for the whole family – but one that you would expect the family to overcome if they were then cared for appropriately. They were in Darwin detention centre for a while, during which time the mother discovered she was pregnant and much against her ethics and beliefs, she decided to have an abortion because she decided she could not have another child in those circumstances. So the mother became unavailable really, and quite damaged by the process – again something that she would be able to work through in different circumstances, but because of the circumstances it had much more of a long term effect.

 

By the time they arrived in Inverbrackie they were very vulnerable. Inverbrackie was an army accommodation, basic but nice houses in a very nice environment – it wasn’t surrounded by wire and locked up. And there were actually sufficient housing units for each family to have their own house, but policy was that you’d fill up each house to the absolute brim before moving on to the next one. So this family was forced to share with another family and it seemed that very little thought went into who you might share with so it was not a very comfortable living arrangement for either family. By the time they were referred to me, the little girl, the 2 year old who had nearly fallen overboard was extremely anxious and couldn’t sleep except when she was in skin-to-skin contact with the mother, so you could imagine the mother who was herself quite miserable at the time and underperforming in terms of her maternal function because of the damage that had been done to her, struggling to get this baby to sleep. Then as soon as she did fall asleep, something would interrupt her. And that something, too often was a guard coming into the premises.

 

At the time, the policy was that a head count had to happen 3 times a day and when as part of the Human Rights Commission, the Immigration Department was asked how often over the years they had an incorrect head count, they replied “never”. So they were applying these head counts – whereby guards would sometimes stomp into bedrooms and turn on lights and count the number of people there – they were conducting these 3 times a day although they’d never found any discrepancies. And you couldn’t really think that was in the best interests of security, that was quite clearly part of the dehumanising experience, the kind of bureaucratic cruelty that people were subjected to. What you had was an environment where there could potentially have been some healing for this family if they’d been put into a house by themselves, if they’d been treated generously and humanely then even in a detention environment there could have been some scope for recovery but everything is so set up in the environment to be, I don’t know if that often people set out to be cruel, but the environment becomes increasingly cruel for people.

 

And you can’t look at one individual aspect and say “that’s torture”. But the overall effect is that people are tortured by their experience and so they couldn’t heal in that environment. That family ultimately were released into detention and put into community detention, but by the time they got there they were so damaged that the children didn’t make as much of a recovery and they’ve gone to a different state now and I’ve lost track of them. But I did keep track of them for a while and they were doing very poorly and that need not have happened. Even in cases where there hasn’t been any individual terrible thing happen to people in detention, they’ve been very damaged by the process.