The trauma of Australia’s asylum seekers

“In my entire career of 43 years I have never seen more atrocity than I have seen in the incarcerated situations of Manus Island and Nauru.”

Paul Stevenson has had a life in trauma. The psychologist and traumatologist has spent 40 years helping people make sense of their lives in the aftermath of disaster, of terrorist attacks, bombings and mass murders, of landslides, fires and tsunamis.

He’s written a book about his experiences, Postcards from Ground Zero, and for his efforts in assisting the victims of the Bali bombings, the Australian government pinned an Order of Australia Medal to his chest.

Now, he says, it is the Australian government deliberately inflicting upon people the worst trauma he has ever seen.

Over 2014 and 2015, Stevenson made 14 “deployments” – as they are called in the militarised argot of those secretive worlds offshore – to Manus Island and Nauru, where about 1,500 asylum seekers who tried to arrive in Australia by boat are held on behalf of the Australian government. His role was to counsel and care for the mental health of the Wilson Security guards.

Stevenson is president of the Queensland branch of the Australian Democrats. The party is not registered in the state, so he is standing in this federal election as an independent, with the support of his party.

He doesn’t know whether his slim electoral chances for a Senate seat – “somewhere between zero and a half” – will be helped or harmed by speaking to the Guardian. But he says he feels it is incumbent on those who have been inside Australia’s offshore detention centres to tell those at home the truth about regional processing.

He says he approached the Guardian, compelled by conscience to speak, “because I believe in our democracy”.

Over a career spanning decades Stevenson has worked with the survivors of the Port Arthur massacre, the Thredbo landslide, the Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. He has counselled diplomats after embassies were bombed, and families who have lost loved ones to bushfires and floods.

Stevenson says that the great privilege – “the joy, even” – of working in the field of trauma is witnessing people fight back from cruel circumstance, working with people “who are incredibly brave, incredibly resilient, incredibly positively focused about what they’re doing”. Continue reading


  • The Guardian, from an article by Ben Doherty and David Marr, who work for The Guardian.
  • Image: CPA
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News category: Features.

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