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Paul Stevenson, the Australian psychologist who blew whistle on Nauru: It’s worse than prison

Paul Stevenson

Paul Stevenson: “The people are so desperate they have only their bodies with which to protest.”

PAUL Stevenson’s dealt with the trauma of the Port Arthur massacre, the Bali bombings and the Boxing Day tsunami but none of it compares with what he’s seen on Nauru and Manus Island.

And speaking out about it has cost him his job.

His voice joins yet another loud chorus of protest from the United Nations commissioner for refugees, Australian human rights commissioner, and countless other human rights advocates and whistleblowers raising alarm about Australia’s immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Paul, a Brisbane Catholic, is a psychologist and traumatologist who describes the trauma he witnessed on Nauru and Manus Island as the worst he’s seen in his 43-year career.

The day after he blew the whistle in a story in The Guardian Australia two months ago, his contract to provide counselling for guards in the off-shore detention centres was cancelled.

He knew it would happen but he saw no choice.

Having visited the centres 16 times for two to three weeks at a time between 2014 and 2015 and witnessed trauma worse than he’d ever seen he could not remain silent.

“I would’ve kept doing (the job). I’d have kept doing it if there was a way to do it, but nothing was happening,” he said back in Brisbane at his 18th floor inner-city office.

“I’ve always been a social justice advocate and I had plenty to say while I was over there and had plenty to say back here while I was going over there but we weren’t getting anywhere.

“And then the election came up and I was running for the election, and I thought ‘Now’s the time. We’ll expose this. I’ll use my credibility as a Senate candidate’.

“And it did hit the fan, and it hit the fan big time. That Guardian article had three million hits … and that sparked off worldwide coverage.”

Paul said the trauma he’d seen on Nauru and Manus Island was worse than he’d seen in dealing with people in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, Bali bombings and Boxing Day tsunami disasters.

He told The Guardian that at those times and in other tragedies “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’”.

“But there’s none of that in offshore detention,” he said in The Guardian.

“You don’t see the positive glimpses, you don’t see the strength of resilience, you don’t see the quirky little things that people do when the chips are down, you don’t see the laughter and you don’t see the bravery, and you don’t see any of those things that give hope for improvement in the lives of these people.”

Speaking to The Catholic Leader since having his contract cancelled, Paul said the worst part of life on Nauru and Manus Island was “the number of critical incidents that occur every day – the number of Code Blues (medical emergencies), death, life-threatening events, suicide, self-harm, horrendous self-harm, the kind of which that has resulted in two immolations”.

“It happens every day – headbutting and lip-sewing and choking and getting others to hit them on the head with rocks – because it’s all they can find – swallowing screws, washing detergents, mosquito repellents, anything that might be provided that might cause a serious self-harm attempt,” he said.

“That’s got to be the worst part of it.

“The people are so desperate they have only their bodies with which to protest. That’s a terrible, desperate situation to be in.”

Paul said the trauma among those detained on Manus Island and Nauru was worse than that experienced in prison.

“It’s far worse than prison. I’ve worked in prisons … and in any number of psychiatric institutions throughout the years,” he said.

“In those places a prisoner, for example, has a fair bit of control over his or her own life.

“They know there’s a finite time when they’re coming out, they know that, and then they can get parole and if they modify their behaviour in such a way that they become a model prisoner they can halve that again.

“They can go and do courses which can reduce the amount of time, so there’s a whole lot that you can do in that environment to have control, but on Nauru or Manus Island it’s just indefinite detention, and you can do nothing to change that.

“And so you can self-harm, attempt suicide, it doesn’t change a thing.

“You can be the very best person you can be, and the most co-operative and most helpful – it doesn’t change thing.

“Every day is just an indefinite detention.

“And you’re being penalised for never having committed a crime, so it’s a terribly unjust, immoral … and the conditions are so much worse than jail – living in tents; 40-degree heat; dusty, dirty conditions; no fresh drinking water; insufficient meals and rations; no medical care to speak of, or very inadequate medical care; no freedoms to manage your own family or parent your own children.

“We push it out there and we say nobody can see it.

“It’s just disgusting what they’re doing.”

Paul, who is Queensland president of the Australian Democrats, has been campaigning against off-shore detention as a candidate at the past four federal elections, starting in 2007.

“What we’re doing is wrong on every level,” he said.

“It’s not just morally and compassionately wrong; it’s legally wrong and it’s politically wrong; and it’s brought on the condemnation of the world for the way that we’re treating asylum seekers.

“There’s no legal basis to what we’re doing.

“I believe we’ll pay dearly in compensations one day. You can’t use sovereign borders as a reason for detaining innocent people.”

Paul’s attitudes are grounded in his Catholic upbringing and especially from 20 years’ involvement with the Iona Passion Play in Brisbane.

He was stage manager for the play for much of that time.

“I was first in (the cast of the play) in 1971 when I was a schoolboy there (at Iona College, Wynnum) and then I came back and started stage-managing it in about 1984 – and right through, and I think the last time I did it was in about 2012,” he said.

“That’s been a big part of my life actually – a great crowd of people.”

That influence flows through to Paul’s work.

“One of the things that kept me in the Passion Play for so long is that I love that story,” he said.

“That is the greatest story ever told, and so my whole life I try to work as Jesus did.”

He said he had “a sense that God’s there, and every so often I think, ‘Come on, let’s make this happen’”.

“I have that sense that if I do good then I’ll be allowed to do good. I’ll be sustained.”

But Paul struggles to see God in what’s happening to the people in off-shore detention.

“There’s not much beauty of anything over there,” he said.

“Every day’s the same indefinite detention.

“These people will wait a while and they have waited a while but it’s taking that long-term view that’s important for them.

“Whether God has a plan, really is only known in the fullness of time, and what they have to do is they have to hang on, they have to be resilient.

“I would love to see some more great stuff but it’s so hard to find.”

And while the human suffering on Nauru and Manus Island is a huge challenge for Australia, and for Paul personally and professionally, he can’t turn his back.

“It’s wrong on every level but that doesn’t preclude being there,” he said.

“It’s things that are wrong on every level that need people to be there, because you’ve got to ease the suffering.

“You’ve got to try to ease the pain.”

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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