Living with the aftermath of mandatory detention
Australia’s mandatory detention policy receives criticism from many quarters: Amnesty International, the United Nations and many human rights organisations and refugee advocacy groups.
I am in a somewhat unique position to be able to say the effects do not disappear over night. I am married to a man who was in detention for many months. While much of Mr O’s time from 2004 was traumatic, I can see of all the situations he found himself in, it is mandatory detention that left the deepest psychological wounds. I am not going to go into details at the symptom level, but I do want to say mandatory detention is psychologically damaging. Mr O is an individual with great mental strength and intelligence – he can see the wounds and is taking the appropriate steps to heal. Naturally the children and I are a part of that healing process, to be there and support him. Miss O 2 is really too young to understand, but the boys and Miss O 1 do understand as much as they are able given their respective ages. My psychologist warned me before Mr O came home that given the length and nature of his journey, he may have difficulty adjusting to normal life. Yet the children also had a difficult time while they had no father: I worry that they also need healing at some level.
Last night Mr O described how he feels, in part: “It was as if I was bound with chains around my chest, pinning my arms to my side. That is how it felt. Now it is as if those chains still hold me, even though they are gone.”
As I guess most detainees do, he developed survival mechanisms in detention that do not work well in normal life. These tend to lock him in a bubble and at times it is like there is Mr O in his bubble and then the rest of us living a “normal” life. Slowly but surely we are breaking that bubble down.
Sleep has always been a problem for him, for he lived in fear for so long, before and during detention. Do not for one minute think anyone feels “safe” in mandatory detention: it is a very frightening experience. One of the reasons he chose a physical career is he knew physical work helped, yet even now he will have bad, sleepless nights and I will come home from work to find the whites of his eyes bright red from tiredness. I do mean bright red – they look painful, they are so red. Lack of sleep followed by a full day’s physical work will do that. He will fall asleep in the lounge chair, but then be unable to sleep when his head hits the pillow. This was a pattern in detention too, in fact for much of his life since 2004. It is hard for anyone to just “flip” back into normality. Of course, when Mr O has a sleepless night, I also have a sleepless night! Someone getting in and out of bed is a disturbance.
Since his arrival back in Australia, Mr O has done amazingly well. He has obtained his drivers licence, completed Certificate II by full-time study and started an apprenticeship, all within 10 months. He is strong and he will overcome the remaining difficulties. What of all the other detainees, however? As we know, for many, mandatory detention becomes too much and people take their own lives. I recently saw an interview with a refugee who was in detention as a child: she said it took her a long time, once released, to be able to lead a normal life. Like my husband, she too is strong and has gone on to build a successful new life. I cannot imbed the video of the interview: please click on the link! Brad Chilcott of Welcome to Australia is also an interviewee and speaks so well.
So often it is the detainees themselves or the medical professionals speaking out about the effects of mandatory detention. I think many people tend to disregard what they say at some level. I am neither: I am simply a wife. I can state, from my own personal experience, the health professionals are correct. Mandatory detention leaves scars. Yes, a strong individual, with the right support, can heal. Mr O will be fine, it just takes time and the right support: as it took time for the young lady in the above interview.
What of all the others?
EDIT: May 29, 2012 Today I saw this article: http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/asylum-seekers-face-new-mental-illness-20120522-1z2ya.html which supports what I said above.