The razor wire surrounding the Villawood Detention Centre. Photo: Bob Pearce
“Public numbing and indifference” towards state abuses in Nazi Germany resembles that enabling Australia’s immigration detention centres, a prominent psychiatrist says, also likening public complicity in the detention regime to the White Australia policy.
On Thursday Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, in Washington to discuss border protection at a Five Country ministerial meeting, repeated the Turnbull government’s insistence that asylum seekers and refugees in Australia for medical care, and their families, would be returned to Nauru once their treatment has finished.
“The government has been consistent all along in relation to our strong stance to make sure we keep our borders secure,” he said.
In a paper published in the Australasian Psychiatry journal this month, Dr Michael Dudley, a psychiatrist at Sydney Children’s Hospital and a senior University of NSW lecturer, wrote that prolonged immigration detention shows “reckless indifference and calculated cruelty”.
Such policies misuse health and welfare professionals to “underwrite state abuses and promote public numbing and indifference resembling other state abuses,” he said, citing the so-called “war on terror” and, with qualification, Nazi Germany.
Asylum seekers at Manus Island detention centre. Photo: Andrew Meares
Dr Dudley said various modern states have purported to protect citizens by identifying security threats, targeting “undesirables” and eliminating public scrutiny.
“Australians may be psychically numbed about boat interceptions and gulags, but cannot claim ignorance,” he wrote.
He later told Fairfax Media that the Nazi regime relied on an underlying ideological commitment in which “the end is seen as justifying the means”.
Dr Michael Dudley says Australians are “psychically numbed about boat interceptions and gulags”. Photo: Brendan Esposito
“We haven’t seen Nazi death camps in Australia … but we have had some pretty extraordinary policies historically in this country, which include policies towards indigenous people.
“I think White Australia has links to our current policies towards boat people in our unwillingness to systematically think about this issue, to contemplate alternatives.”
He said like gulags, detention centres were “places out of sight, out of mind where terrible things are happening and we are assuming the state is looking after us”.
An asylum seeker in detention on Christmas Island. Photo: James Brickwood
In the journal, Dr Dudley said health and welfare workers who assisted the Nazi regime were usually ordinary people motivated by “peer and situational pressures, careerism and ideological commitments”, and that “euphemism, bureaucratic routines and missionary zeal facilitated psychic numbing and denial”.
He called for the healthcare of asylum seekers to be transferred from the immigration bureaucracy to state and federal health departments to strengthen clinical independence and help uphold ethical codes.
Dr Dudley said health professionals working in the detention regime were “lending credibility to abuses”, whether deliberately or inadvertently.
Detainees at Nauru detention centre. Photo: Angela Wylie
His comments came as the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists on Thursday released new guidelines for those working in immigration detention. It includes a statement that advocating against policies that harm mental health is a “non-partisan activity integral to delivering quality healthcare”.
A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the government had a “compassionate approach toward vulnerable people, but our hardline against people smugglers remains resolute. We are not going to allow the deaths at sea to recommence.”