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Seeking Asylum in Australia:
Experiences and Policies

Ida Kaplan

Pursuing Justice and Recovery for Asylum Seekers: A Psychological Perspective

Three images of the sinking of the asylum boat SIEV X by Kate Durham
Image: Three panels from the SIEV X artwork collection by Kate Durham - see

The papers of the 2005 Monash University Conference Seeking Asylum in Australia: 1995-2005 are copied to this website with permission of the compilers (June 2007). Previously published by The Institute for Public History, The Australian Centre for the Study of Jewish Civilization and Monash University (ISBN 0-9757387-3-9). Downloadable from this website through the PDF file below.

List of papers:

NOTE: the titles of the papers in the list below are hyperlinked to their respectice copies on this website. Currently you are visiting the page for the paper that's NOT hyperlinked in the list below.

Ida Kaplan

Refugee Health Research Centre, La Trobe University & Direct Services Manager, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture

Dr. Ida Kaplan is Direct Services Manager at the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST). She oversees the development and delivery of client services for refugees who are survivors of torture and trauma. She has developed and delivered training programs for a variety of sectors at state, national and international levels and was the principal author of Rebuilding Shattered Lives. Her interest in human rights is long-standing and the inextricable link between health and human rights is a fundamental principle of VFST's work.


The experiences of refugees and asylum seekers are not incidental by-products of war and conflict but are the result of systematic and planned attempts to destroy them. The means of destruction include torture, planned displacement, ethnic cleansing and increasingly the targeting of children, because they are the future of any community. Distinctive issues for understanding the impact of violence, displacement and seeking refuge are presented. Cognitive, social and emotional effects are far-reaching affecting health and development.

Ida Kaplan

Pursuing Justice and Recovery for Asylum Seekers: A Psychological Perspective

For the young especially, notions of good and bad, trust in others and the future can be irrevocably changed, influencing the development of fundamental values about self-worth and life itself. Promoting recovery and healing requires a broad conceptual framework including the restoration of meaning and justice.

In this paper I am going to present in some detail what the adverse psychological effects of being an asylum seeker are and how we can contribute to mitigating those effects. This is an enormous challenge given that the political environment is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, we still have a mandatory detention policy and we have a temporary protection system for those who arrive on our shores or airports without authorisation.

For those who arrive with some sort of valid visa, the conditions are better - they are allowed to live in the community but without access to any financial assistance or Medicare rights if they fail to be recognised as refugees after the first stage of determination by DIMIA, or if they fail to lodge a refugee application within 45 days after arrival. (There are some exceptions to these entitlements.) If their application fails at the second stage of determination by the Refugee Review Tribunal, and they proceed with a humanitarian application, they not only have no income entitlements, but they lose their work rights. (Again there are some exceptions to this general rule.)

Psychological Effects of the Asylum-Seeking Process

Essentially, the asylum-seeking process is inherently re-traumatising for people who have experienced violence and human rights violations prior to their arrival in Australia. The nature of their experiences does vary depending on the country of origin and the degree to which a person has experienced violence directly. For some countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan it is likely that everyone has been the victim of human rights violations.

Last year, in 2004, I attended an Australian-Iraqi forum. I listened to presentations by the President of the Iraqi Academy of Sciences and the President of the Organisation for Human Rights in Iraq.

They gave accounts of their own torture and the torture of their friends. They described in detail the methods of torture which were used. One presenter, although a survivor himself, quite spontaneously expressed his shock and horror over what human beings could do to one another, as he showed pictures of amputations and burns and a picture of his friend who had been blinded as a result of cigarettes being put out on his eyes. Their accounts highlighted what has now become well known for the case of Iraq - men, women and children were tortured, not for information they held but as part of the reign of terror. And that is the main purpose of torture - to crush opposition and maintain power.

A film which transformed my understanding of torture from an incomprehensible evil to one of an all too human and systematic quest for power and control was Amnesty International's film 'Your Neighbour's Son'. In that film the recruitment of torturers was shown.

The Greek military recruited unemployed young men with anti-communist leanings. In their training they were brutalised but in their graduation ceremonies they were bestowed the highest honours and received the paraphernalia of power - beautiful uniforms with symbols of belonging to a special force. They had also been taught about their special duties to protect the national interest and to see their future victims as vermin. I will never forget the footage of a young man describing (these are his words) the intoxicating power of boarding a bus and everyone shrinking with fear. There were also the unforgettable words of one of the chief torturers they interviewed. He was a father himself and coolly stated that he would have tortured children.

As a psychologist I realised with horror how once ordinary human beings had been made into torturers by manipulating normal human needs for belonging and self-esteem and the human need to avoid humiliation and helplessness. This was not evil in the sense of a mysterious inexplicable force, nor was it banal.

Torture and other forms of systematised violence are designed not just to destroy individuals but their communities. At the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture we have worked with survivors of human rights violations from over 40 countries. Some of those countries are: Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Kosovo. In all cases targeted individuals have been part of communities who represent a threat to a faction or government intent on holding power.

Human rights violations and state sanctioned violence derive their power to destroy in several ways. At VFST we use this analysis to understand the impact on individuals, families and their communities. [1]

The destructive impact on individuals and communities can be far-reaching and transgenerational. There are four key ways in which persecutory regimes can destroy individuals, families and communities.

  1. Breakdown can be achieved or is attempted by creating a state of terror and chronic fear, and helplessness. Helplessness and fear are manipulated to the extreme in torture. Quoting from Kate Millett:

    [T]orture is fear - it's the not knowing, the uncertainty of menace that drives you to panic. Not just what they do to you, but what they may do to you next, what they have the power to do to you, at any moment, at every moment - and if the world keeps silent afterward, torture is not only victorious but permanent, eternal and continuous. [2]

    Paralleling the victim's necessary submission to his or her torture, a community's safety is made dependent upon submission to the oppressor.

  2. The second destructive set of elements is the systematic disruption of basic and core attachments to families, friends, and communities. The disruption to relationships produces isolation, intense scrutiny of others and outright distrust. Many people are unaware of how intimate relationships are affected. Under torture the torturer's aim is to have total control over their victims and this is sometimes achieved by intermittently granting small favours or small comforts. This fosters dependence on the torturer. Once the victim is released, the survivor will avoid dependency, it being associated with captivity and the shame of having been dependent. The long term effect is isolation which resonates with the torturer's famous boast -'no one will ever know, no one will ever hear you, no one will ever find out'. [3]

    It is also not widely known that the torture survivor avoids contact with others for fear of infecting others with death or evil. Lifton calls this the 'death taint'. [4]

    Even greater destructive power emanates from the deliberate disruption to attachments between children and parents. This is achieved by destroying families through rape of women. It also includes the deliberate targeting of children including the use of torture.

  3. The third destructive element results from people being part of and witness to violations which occur on a mass scale. This can dramatically change at an existential level how a person sees themselves, other people and the world at large. The seeming capricious acts of violence taint the survivor with a sense of being disposable and discardibile. The rule of law has failed, or serves oppressors, independent judicial processes do not operate. Protection can only be sought through flight. In some cases anger and injustice can be harnessed for retributive justice.

  4. Finally, shame and guilt are the most destructive effects - to the individual. Even when nothing could have been done to change a situation, people imagine that they should have been able to do something. This is a particularly enduring torment for children and adolescents.

Robert Jay Lifton, amongst many other prominent writers in the field of trauma, wrote about survivor guilt - the terrible feelings which accompany survival in the face of others having not. He writes that it is inevitable that people who witness harm being done to others whilst being helpless to do anything about it experience a sense of failed enactment.

In ordinary circumstances, failed enactment is the basis for healthy guilt. But torturers, perpetrators and oppressors purposefully plan to put their victims in situations where they transgress their most sacred values and moral principles rendering them weak and ashamed. Forcing the victim to witness atrocities committed against others is deliberately contrived to maximise not only the person's fear but to force them into a position of having failed to protect loved ones. As Judith Herman writes, 'the sense of shame and defeat comes not merely for his/her failure to intercede but also from the realisation that his/her captors have usurped his inner life'. [5]


It is against this background that one can readily understand how detention and the conditions under which asylum seekers live in the community leads to so much harm. I do not think that any psychiatric diagnostic system captures the assault on safety, connections, trust and dignity which accompanies human rights violations wherever they occur.

Figure 1 summarises the way the retraumatisation occurs.

Asylum seekers live with constant uncertainty, under the threat of return against their will. This maintains the anxiety and fear caused by previous violence. Furthermore, threatening circumstances in the host country such as prejudice and exposure to news of continued violence and threats to family in their country of origin stimulate new fears. In some countries family members will be interrogated. With fewer rights than citizens of the host country and far fewer resources, asylum seekers constitute an extremely powerless group.

It takes little to imagine how a detention regime with its confinement, guards and the very fact of being detained without having committed a crime would re-evoke in survivors of torture and trauma past repression.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Country of Origin Antecedents of the Trauma Response and Maintenance in the Country of Asylum.

The sense of loss due to separation from family is acute and becomes more intense with the passage of time. The asylum seeker is robbed of their vision and hope for a new life. One of my clients who was tortured and raped described how being left alive meant that she could start again. Two years after her arrival in Australia she was still hopeful of being accepted. When her rejection came she became severely depressed and highly symptomatic, reliving her past experiences of torture.

Central assumptions about human values and rights continue to be assailed in the host country. Government policies and the rapid changes to them create a deep sense of injustice. The violation of human rights and the injustice of subjecting people to degradation is the mark of the oppressor. Acts of injustice in a country which was sought for protection are triggers for previous trauma and renew stimuli evoking betrayal of human values. A sensitivity to injustice understandably develops. Unfortunately survivors can become victim to an inability to tolerate any incursion on fairness. As a result everyday life can become a constant source of frustration and anger.

Recovery Through Justice

Guilt is probably the source of greatest pain. One of the factors which has broken the spirit of people held in detention for long periods of time, if not irrevocably harmed them, is their complete inability to contribute to the well-being of loved ones whilst held in such conditions. People risked everything for safety - rarely just for themselves. And instead of being honoured for that sacrifice, for we certainly bestow honours of bravery on people who risk everything to save others, they have been vilified and blamed.

Until the asylum seeker is successful in obtaining permanent residency, the asylum seeker clearly cannot achieve a sense of safety. Legal advocates and other services are critical to contributing to decision making processes. The public and community based organisations can contribute through English classes, accommodation and supporting employment seeking and job provision. What is terrible about the loss of work rights is that even voluntary work is prohibited.

The greatest contribution can come from reducing isolation and the loss of faith and trust in human beings. This can be achieved in all sorts of ways through forging friendships, recognition, providing financial assistance which allows telephone calls to be made to families overseas, genuine and consistent relationships, and especially support for children and young people who are developing and internalising the goodness or otherwise of human relationships.

There are ways to assist with guilt, not by telling people that there is nothing else they could have done or can do, but by exposing the intentions of perpetrators, the purposeful intent, the manipulation of the victim's guilt to render them passive, also the intent of government policy which creates victims rather than survivors in order to deter others. In this way self-blame can shift and energy for exposing injustice can be harnessed. This is obviously a long term process. Critically important in the shorter term is providing survivors with some means to meaningfully assist family members still living in circumstances of danger.

Where honour cannot be officially bestowed it can certainly be bestowed by individuals and communities working with survivors. The value of the work of professionals and volunteers is incalculable in this regard. Material support to asylum seekers for example is not just about providing food and shelter - it is a recognition of the wrongs they have been subjected to.


1. VFST, Rebuilding Shattered Lives (Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, 1998).

2. Kate Millet, The Politics of Cruelty (London: Penguin, 1994).

3. Millet, The Politics of Cruelty.

4. R. J. Lifton, 'From Hiroshima to the Nazi Doctors', in International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, ed. J. P. Wilson and B. Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), 11-24.

5. J. L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992).