AUSTRALIA IS A nation forged by invasion, subjugation, and immigration – both forced and voluntary. Yet the contested relationship between trauma and migration remains one the less examined backdrops of Australian life and politics.
All migrations involve loss, even when chosen in optimal circumstances. The question of when trauma arises is complex and bound up with the variables of personal stories and subjective experience. One thing is clear though: the punitive effect of the penal system on transported convicts, and the devastating impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, make trauma foundational to Australia’s history since the First Fleet. What is more, the positive aspects and achievements of Australian immigration are increasingly overshadowed and undermined by its damning failures, especially the steady stream horrors reported in relation to those trapped on Manus and Nauru – self-harm, suicide, extreme protest and alleged medical negligence.
Yet the story of Australian immigration in the modern era is heartening in many ways. In the postwar era, immigration was synonymous with nation-building. When Australia began resettling displaced Europeans after 1945, it was not primarily an act of humanitarianism or a response to international obligations. Rather, it was part of a push to ‘populate or perish’. Australia was presented both as a land of opportunity and as a sanctuary to those in need of refuge, so it may be no historical accident that Australia’s ratification brought the 1951 Refugee Convention into force in international law. The 1950s and ’60s saw over 250,000 people come to Australia from displaced-person camps in Europe. While extending the source of migrants beyond the UK to northern Europe, resettlement was still based on a commitment to White Australia. Eventually, though, racially exclusive immigration policy was abandoned, and political rhetoric and community understanding shifted from assimilation to multiculturalism. Australia went on to play a leading regional role in the resettlement of refugees displaced by the conflicts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as well as refugees fleeing brutal regimes in Central and Latin America during the late 1970s and ’80s. Today, Australia is one of only a few countries committed to a substantial humanitarian resettlement program, but this has been overshadowed in recent decades by a competing narrative of border protection. In 1992, a Labor government introduced mandatory detention for all unauthorised arrivals (who are mostly asylum seekers seeking protection as refugees), and in 2001 a Coalition government moved detention and processing offshore. John Howard etched this approach into the historical record with his declaration that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. Bar a brief reprieve in the early Rudd years, subsequent governments have expanded the comprehensiveness of the border protection regime and dialled up its harshness. These policies have transformed Australia’s image and reputation. We are no longer viewed as a nation committed to refugee protection and humanitarian resettlement, but as one determined to use the full resources of the state to deter and repel asylum seekers. There have been suggestions that Australia’s stance may have emboldened President Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy that divided families at the border, detaining children and their care givers in separate facilities.
IMMIGRATION IS OFTEN connected to trauma. It may have its roots in traumatic experiences that force people to flee, it may involve traumatic passage and, for some, traumatic challenges settling in a new land. Often there is a threat to life itself. This was the case for the Irish who fled famine to the United States, for European Jews who fled fascism, and for Chileans escaping persecution and violence following Pinochet’s coup. My focus is on psychological trauma, with or without physical danger, and on drawing attention to its less-apparent operations.
Common understanding and usage of the word ‘trauma’ often confuses trauma with distress. Though trauma is often distressing, the two should not be conflated. Rather, trauma denotes an experience or event that has not been properly registered or processed due to its overwhelming of the nervous system. Trauma causes changes in the wiring of the brain and has persistent psychological, bodily and behavioural consequences. Most people are familiar with the notion of trauma as relating to a specific event, and in mental health parlance this is known as ‘incident trauma’, but there are more pernicious, insidious and less widely recognised forms. Gillian Straker, a past professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Sydney and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, notes that ‘continuous traumatic stress’ was initially identified in association with civil conflict in South Africa in the 1980s. Shortly after, in 1992, Judith Herman introduced the term ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’ as an attempt to differentiate between the effects of a once-off traumatic event and a more chronic exposure to traumatic experience.
Such exposure takes many forms, but the chronic trauma of war motivates immigration most notably. Ziena Issa was six years old when the civil war in Lebanon forced her family and most of her neighbours to flee as refugees to Syria, where they stayed for three months before returning home. The displacement of her family was relatively short-lived, and Issa notes the privilege that enabled their escape to safety, describing full hotels and monasteries in the host country, and the way those of lesser means faced far more hardship or were forced to remain at risk (many were subsequently massacred). The war raged on around her throughout most of her life prior to migrating to Australia. ‘It became my normal existence,’ she says. Having immigrated to Australia thirty years ago at eighteen to marry an Australian, Issa describes a fundamentally positive immigration experience, stating that she benefits from ‘positive attributes from both countries and cultures’. But she also speaks of a ‘huge sense of loss. Loss of identity, friends, family, voice, intellect and sense of belonging’ and ‘underlying trauma’, no doubt in part the result of growing up amid war.
The identification of complex post-traumatic stress disorder was an important development, but there is a difference again between a history of chronic trauma, as described by Issa, and the traumatic experiences reported by many refugees seeking asylum in Australia. According to Straker the distinction between continuous traumatic stress and complex post-traumatic stress disorder lies in the word ‘continuous’. Continuous traumatic stress describes chronic traumatic experiences that are not only historic but ongoing (for example, an asylum seeker turns to a country in hopes of finding refuge only to languish in poor conditions in indefinite offshore detention).
THERE ARE GOOD reasons why the immigration story is currently dominated by the plight of refugees. Multiple conflicts since the terrorist attacks of 2001 have forced millions from their homes, and global displacement is at an all-time high. (The UNHCR estimates the total number of displaced persons to be 68.5 million.)
A ‘refugee’ is defined under the UN Convention as a person outside of their country of origin who is at risk of persecution due to their religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion and who because of that fear is unwilling to return. An ‘asylum seeker’ is defined as a person seeking protection from persecution whose claim has not yet been assessed. They have usually travelled from their country of origin to another, safer location before the application process can be initiated or completed, or they may not have been confirmed refugees due to other complications such as missing paperwork or identifying documents.
There are two pathways to protection in Australia: the humanitarian program that resettles vulnerable people from locations overseas and the system for managing asylum seekers who make their own way to Australia and seek protection on arrival. Within the latter group, there are two distinct streams: one for people who arrive with valid travel documents, usually by plane, and another for people who arrive without valid travel documentation, usually by boat. There is a popular view that unauthorised arrivals are not ‘genuine refugees’, but according to refugee mental health expert Professor Zachary Steel, St John of God Chair of Trauma and Mental Health at the University of New South Wales, evidence suggests otherwise. Historically, asylum seekers who arrive by boat have strong claims for protection and a high proportion have been recognised as refugees.
Terms like ‘genuine refugee’ or ‘economic migrant’ are highly problematic. They are generally deployed to invalidate the legitimacy of asylum seekers by suggesting that they are motivated by aspirations for a better life rather than by the need to escape persecution. It should be immediately apparent that these two motivations often coincide. While some claims for protection may be weak or opportunistic, rejected cases are rarely clear cut, and the reasons for denying protection can often be technical. There are other issues with these terms and the assumptions that come with them, including what Flavia Dzodan refers to as the ‘liberal taxonomy of “worthy” vs “unworthy” migrants’ in a recent Twitter thread. Critiquing the way ‘the economic migrant is not recognised as a political refugee because there is no interest in examining the conditions that create economic displacement’, Dzodan says governmentally conditioned aid, tariff systems, protectionist measures and unjust economic organisations squeeze people out of the regions Trump infamously declared ‘shithole countries’. They arrive in the so-called first-world to find themselves cast as greedy, conniving job stealers. In short, Dzodan calls out Westerners who indulge in what she sees as feel-good virtue signalling: the expression of compassion for the suffering ‘political refugee’ while ignoring the structural inequities that give rise to the ‘economic migrant’. We might think here of climate-change refugees, whose claims are not recognised under the convention. Unable to pursue a livelihood in their homelands due to drought or rising sea levels, they too are doomed to be cast as ‘economic migrants’.
Australia humanitarian response to the global refuge crisis takes the form of ‘we’ll find you, you don’t find us’. It is a strategy shared with other large immigration nations, such as the United States and Canada, and together these countries have the largest reliable resettlement programs for refugees. Some European countries have smaller programs, although numbers vary from year to year. In some respects, Australia’s contribution to refugee protection is impressive. For example, the Department of Home Affairs report on the humanitarian program shows visa grants rising from 12,479 in 2012–13 to 20,257 in 2016–17. But statistics don’t tell the whole story: the two programs, offshore and onshore, have been yoked together so that every asylum seeker granted protection onshore takes the place of a person who would have been resettled from overseas. Since the children overboard scandal manufactured by the Howard government ahead of the 2001 federal election, Australian policy has come to exhibit an irreconcilable split, reviling the asylum seeker on one hand while reaching out to the certified refugee on the other. This has only served to confuse public views of trauma-based immigration in Australia.
A GOOD DEAL has been written and published about the dire circumstances that undocumented asylum seekers have endured these past years. Mainland journalists and activists, refugee advocacy organisations, community leaders and the men who remain on Manus have been particularly active and articulate in denouncing the governments’ policy and practices via Twitter, Facebook and publications like The Guardian and The Saturday Paper. This aspect of Australian immigration is clearly shameful, but it is only the latest black mark on Australia’s shocking history of repeated failures to protect people in institutional care. Well before the Australian government adopted detention as the standard for managing arrivals by boat, it joined in the perpetration of another mass human rights abuse when it accepted seven thousand British children aged between three and fourteen sent to Australia under assisted child migrant schemes. Known as ‘home children’, most were from disadvantaged backgrounds and many endured the horrors of slave labour, neglect, separation from siblings, and abuse – including sexual abuse – in children’s homes, orphanages and foster care. The Australian government formally apologised for its involvement in these twentieth-century schemes in 2009, yet it continues to defend its hardline treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, despite the profound traumatic injuries its policies inflict.
Complicating that bleak picture is the fact that Australia boasts some of the most innovative programs designed to ensure the successful settlement of humanitarian migrants and refugees. Over recent decades, Australia has led the field in developing specialist trauma treatment centres, language training and integration services. These humanitarian resettlement services offer intensive case management over the first six to twelve months after arrival, linking refugee entrants with orientation, language support, housing, prior academic skill accreditation, job retraining and specialist health services (including trauma-informed mental health support). Refugees’ positive impact on Australian society is rarely acknowledged in prideful nation-state narratives, yet they are, and always have been, critical to the constructive progress of Australian culture and the economy.
The other ways people become residents of Australia are through the two main streams of the permanent migration program: the family stream (made up mostly of the foreign partners of Australian citizens), and the skilled stream. In the case of the latter, it is expected that arrivals, viewed as assets, will ensure immediate gains for the nation by providing the skills Australia needs to grow its economy. While some turn out to be temporary migrants, others put down roots and make significant contributions.
Sandra and Colin Tatz immigrated to Australia from South Africa in 1961 under the Assisted British Migrants Program (South Africa being part of the Commonwealth), the same program that lured many ‘ten-pound Poms’. In reflecting on their motivation for migrating, Sandra Tatz says, ‘We were not in direct danger, but Colin’s associations put him at risk. In the South Africa of those days you were judged by the company you kept, and a lot of his friends and associates were in ninety-day detention.’ They set sail as a young Jewish couple with an infant child after Colin accepted a PhD scholarship at the Australian National University. Two more children were born on Australian soil and Colin went on to receive the Officer of the Order of Australia and become a professor of politics, the director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the author of over twenty books. ‘However bad Australia can be in terms of how it treats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and some of the refugees who seek haven here, it has been good to us and offered unlimited opportunities,’ Sandra says. ‘I doubt we could have had a better experience in any other country.’
A notable aspect of the immigration and trauma story that flies under the radar is the person who flees familial trauma. Laura Kenny immigrated from Canada to Australia on a fiancé visa to escape her history of childhood sexual assault (she was sexually abused by her alcoholic father between the ages of four and fourteen). Even though the abuse had stopped more than a decade prior to her leaving Canada, Laura speaks of a ‘strong need to get as far away as possible.’ She met her future husband on a six-week Contiki tour of Europe, and within a year she was married and a resident of Australia. ‘I do believe that the reason I moved to Australia and married someone I didn’t know how to love is because of my early trauma… It was a chance to start over.’
Laura experienced an initial sense of relief and freedom, but there were problems too, such as isolation. ‘I don’t make friends easily and I came to rely completely on my husband.’ Even so, she didn’t disclose her traumatic history to her husband until they had been married for fifteen years. After many years of counselling, Laura has come to understand the way trauma has shaped her life. ‘Even though my trauma was in the past, my fight-or-flight response was still very strong (and still is),’ she says, and this traumatic impulse toward flight informs migratory movements all over the globe that are frequently not recognised as being grounded in trauma.
LANGUAGE, TOO, IS often overlooked. ‘To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’ – so goes the famous quote by Frantz Fanon, the influential American psychiatrist, philosopher, activist and writer. It stands to reason, then, that to leave or lose a language is to lose a world, a culture.
‘Migrating to a new country, language and culture is a daunting experience’, Issa, reflecting on her more permanent immigration from Lebanon to Australia, says. ‘I was lucky to speak English well enough when I migrated to Australia. I was adamant from day one, to speak it well enough as if I was a native speaker. I said to myself: “If I am to live here for the rest of my life, then I must be able to have a voice.” It took me three years before I started to feel that I could finally express myself well and eloquently.’ Issa describes the process as ‘somewhat traumatic’, noting that the rejection and dismissal a person faces when they are unable to express their view or opinion can be more than merely distressing and frustrating. It can be so disorienting, diminishing and alienating as to constitute psychic trauma via subjective splitting and erosion of self-esteem. ‘People did not possess the patience to wait as I tried to articulate my thoughts. When you cannot speak a language well enough, especially English, you are deemed stupid’, Issa says. People in English-speaking countries tend to assume that everyone should speak their language, and English is an almost universal tongue. But given that we are not required to be bilingual, we mostly lack the understanding of how challenging it can be to master another language.
When it comes to asylum seekers, language has been downright weaponised. Australia’s major political parties have sold offshore detention for boat arrivals to the public as terrorism prevention and as a strategy to stop drownings at sea, shoring up votes in the process, notwithstanding the occasional slip on spin. Successive immigration ministers have advanced pejorative labels that undermine the legitimacy of asylum seekers who have been variously described as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’. The use of such language has become an acceptable norm, both politically and in the mind of many Australians. The government has also sought to silence asylum seekers in detention. After the Australian Border Force moved to confiscate the mobile phones of detained asylum seekers, claiming they were being used for criminal activity, human rights lawyers fought for an injunction. The Federal Court backed them, refusing repeated attempts by the government to stem the flow of asylum seeker testimony.
The assessment of asylum applications, both offshore and for those arriving undocumented, is fraught with linguistic, cultural and procedural hazards that render the refugee determination process deeply troublesome. The decision-making context is vexed from the outset as it pitches the applicant and their representative against the critical scrutiny of a decision-maker who is mandated to assess the merits of the claim against the often patchy available information in relation to claims put to them. It’s a system set up to question and test refugee claims, and its default setting is to listen to people’s stories with incredulity. There is evidence that psychologically vulnerable applicants may be prone to being misunderstood in such contexts in that their symptoms can interfere with their capacity to operate in a situation of extreme stress and to accurately recount their experiences.
Memory is not fixed. When it comes to trauma, which overwhelms the central nervous system and the capacity of the conscious mind, memory is especially prone to distortions. Traumatic memories are fragmented, lack specificity, tend to be over generalised, and can be mutable and unreliable. Many immigration decision-makers have traditionally made use of peripheral contextual information to test the accuracy of a claim, which is the very part of traumatic memory most likely to be malleable and changeable as a result of post-traumatic and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinical research suggests that the traumatised brain confuses contextual information: one day an asylum seeker might say there were two people torturing them, and the next time they are interviewed they might say there were three. In other words, they might express trauma-induced confusion about how many people were doing the torturing, but they are clear on the torturing being done. Research also shows that people with complex post-traumatic stress disorder have more testimonial discrepancies over time.
There have been efforts to address these problems by establishing guidance directives relating to vulnerable applicants, and these highlight the findings of trauma and mental health research. But the extent to which decision-makers consider such vulnerability varies, and alarming anecdotal allegations circulate. There are tales of translators relaying inaccurate information, either accidentally due to regional linguistic and/or cultural differences or, occasionally, wilfully due to bias. There are baffling cases, such as a pair of twins who arrived together by boat from Afghanistan, one of whom the department assessed as a persecuted refugee and approved him for refugee status, while the other was declared not persecuted and denied refugee status (the Administrative Appeals Tribunal eventually overturned the verdict on the denied brother). Applicants themselves can also unwittingly misreport. Words like persecution, torture and trauma can mean different things to different people in different contexts, and perceptions of those experiences can be subjectively skewed and even relative.
Ziena Issa, who works as an interpreter, confirms the hearsay about miscommunications. ‘Interpreting is a skilful profession which requires a high level of competency. Unfortunately, there is a large number of interpreters who are not highly skilled. The current accreditation and soon-to-be recertification system implemented in Australia and endorsed by the Australian government does not necessarily screen interpreters correctly. Dialects and all linguistic hurdles can be overcome by a skilled interpreter; there are techniques that tackle such issues. It is the lack of competency that is the main problem.’ The banality of governmental indifference to the procedural pitfalls blighting the claims process that determines the fate of traumatised human beings has come to characterise Australia’s management of asylum seekers.
Invoking the nationalistic, Anglo-centric ideals of yesteryear, as the Pauline Hansons would have us do, is not the way forward. The redeeming response to serious policy and administrative shortcomings – and to the multifaceted reality of Australian life and immigration – calls instead for a better understanding of how trauma continues to influence who we are, and a corresponding concern with our ethical responsibilities to those impacted by trauma. Hope for the future lies in the exercise of true leadership and a populace that harnesses the goodwill, integrity and empathy necessary to take honest inventory of our history, policies, practices, and attitudes in service of becoming a more sustainable, honourable and sound country.
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