The following two pieces of writing were recently published in the inaugural issue of The International Narrative Therapy and Community Work (no.1, 2002).

Imprisoning those seeking refuge

by David Denborough

Throughout the process of putting together this journal on the question of forgiveness, one of the biggest concerns here in Australia has been the ways in which we are currently treating those who arrive on our shores seeking refuge.

Over the last few years, boat people fleeing mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq have been arriving on Australia’s shores. In seeking political asylum, they have been met with hostility and mandatory detention. Recently they have been expelled from Australian waters by the use of military vessels, and those who have made it to the mainland have been imprisoned for many months in desolate detention centres. One of the most notorious of these centres, Woomera, is located in South Australia in desert-like conditions. As I write, just days before this journal will go to the printer, there are hunger strikes and other forms of protest, including people sewing their lips together, occurring in detention centres around the country. Families who have fled regimes in other parts of the world and have sought safety here in Australia, are now risking their lives once more.

There is, of course, a long history of ‘boat people’ arriving on these shores. Various Indigenous Australians often point to the First Fleet from England as being the first arrival of such people. There is also a long history of racist exclusion in this land. The very first act of our Federal Parliament in 1901 came to be known as the White Australia policy.

Many counsellors and health professionals are now having to think through what it means that Australia is detaining families who are seeking refuge. It does leave us wondering whether we or our children and grandchildren will one day be needing to accept responsibility, or indeed seek forgiveness, for events that are happening right now.

Responding to our treatment of asylum seekers

by Michael White

It is hot and windy out here. It is midsummer in the parched Australian desert.

In this detention centre for those seeking asylum there are hundreds of stories to be told. Stories from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Stories of persecution and trauma. Stories of quests for safety and a better life.

When people have experienced trauma due to the unjust actions of others, when they have been subject to abuse and terror in one form or another, to witness some justice being done through some form of redress is of critical importance to healing. Such acts of redress do not necessarily involve those who have perpetrated the injustices – often this is not possible. These acts of redress may however involve those who make themselves available to listen and to bear witness to people’s expressions of the injustices that they have experienced, who can respond in ways that are powerfully acknowledging of what people have been put through, and in ways that are honouring of people’s responses to these injustices. These witnesses can also offer comfort and safety, and join with these people in taking whatever steps possible in ensuring that others are not subject to similar injustices. For those people who are going through trauma that is the outcome of abuse and terror, to experience some form of redress is a key element of healing.

Just as experiencing some act of redress to injustice is healing, to experience the opposite is to further traumatise, to destroy hope, to fuel acts of desperation, and eventually to create paralysing despair. The people locked in these compounds in the Australian desert have come from contexts in which they have not experienced justice being done. In their quests for safety and a better life they have made perilous journeys over great distances. But still they find no redress.

Instead they find themselves incarcerated in detention centres being subject to further acts of degradation and injustice. Far from offering our country as a context for healing, we are re-traumatising those who have already suffered so much. Enough is now known about the long-term effects of trauma that there can be no excuse for this – there can be no excuse for the re-traumatising of those who have been traumatised. Those who are detained here are doing all of the things that people do in relation to coping with trauma. To look around these compounds is to see people at times in protest, but more commonly in various states of distress, hopelessness, and despair. There are also those in states of stupor that are chemically induced by mind-numbing medications that are employed in efforts to provide people with relief by taking them off the air.

In the heat and the wind, there are some children playing with a ribbon tied to a security fence. They are pretending, I think, that this ribbon is attached to a kite. But of course, it is not. A kite wouldn’t survive this environment – it would be torn to pieces by the razor wire that surrounds the compounds. It is this razor wire that these children see when they direct their gaze to the outside world. They cannot be outside, but I think that the imaginary kite on the end of their ribbon flies free, bearing with it their longings and their thin but precious hopes for another life.

I cannot think of this and many other similar scenes out there behind these fences without crying. How can we be participating in the re-traumatising of those who have already been through so much? How can we all play a part in stopping this? And what steps might be available to us in contributing to acts of redress that might provide some possibilities for healing?

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