The truth about Australia's offshore detention regime: 'The worst I've ever seen.'

Trigger warning: This post contains details of physical and mental abuse and self-harm. 

Paul Stevenson has worked in the aftermath of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and mass shootings.

He assisted victims of the Bali Bombings, survivors of the Port Arthur massacre and the Boxing Day tsunamis.

And yet, in more than four decades working as a psychologist specialising in trauma, he says nothing he has seen compares to the horrors Australia is inflicting on refugees and asylum seekers in our offshore detention facilities.

“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,” he told The Guardian in an exclusive report published today.

From 2014 to 2015, Stevenson visited Manus Island and Nauru 14 times in his role as counsellor for the Wilson security staff, but it necessitated an understanding of the situation for the 1,500 former boat arrivals in their care.

According to official incident reports seen by The Guardianduring Stevenson’s time in the Pacific, six unaccompanied boys on Nauru tried to kill themselves with razor blades.

A three-year-old boy was allegedly molested by a guard, but his mother was too terrified to report it until months later.

A woman attempted to kill herself seven times in three weeks and threatened to kill her own daughter.

Another woman stuck on Nauru with her young son, facing the prospect of permanent separation from her husband in Australia, carved the words “releases the feelings in my heart and I feel better” into her chest.


A man, carved open his own stomach because he was not allowed to see or speak with his cousin and a woman, found naked and distressed, claiming to have been sexually assaulted, was taken to the police station instead of a doctor.

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“Every day is demoralising. Every single day and every night. And you can work an eight-hour shift, or a 16-hour-shift, or a 20-hour-shift, you can get up in the middle of the night to answer the calls to go down to the camp, and you know it’s not getting any better,” Stevenson said.

Most of the guards on Manus Island and Nauru come from a military background and many are simply there to work and make money, Stevenson says.

“People who are very compassionate and concerned about their work burn out pretty quickly.

“It does become very normal and people become very desensitised to it … so we find that even amongst the guards, there’s a desensitisation to a whole range of traumas.


“If there’s six or so [suicide attempts] in a day, then you’re starting to get an attrition about that.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder in detention is rife and cannot be successfully treated because it is the nature of detention itself which causes it, Stevenson says.

“This is what detention does to people … It turns them against themselves to use themselves as currency. And that’s a very very significant level of traumatisation, when somebody does that. All they have is their own body to negotiate with. If we’re in any way supporting the development of that very, very mentally unstable phenomena we need to do something about that.”


Children in the Nauru detention facility. Source: Refugee Action Collective (Victoria)

He says unlike other trauma situations he's attended, there's no glimmer of hope for those in detention who are constantly monitored, even while they sleep and are in the shower.

Family structures break down and children either ignore the authority of their parents because they know that guards hold the real power or  they replicate desperate behaviours, including self-harm.

For their birthdays, the children ask for keys, because they are a symbol of freedom.

"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.

"[It’s] that demoralisation that is the paramount feature of offshore detention. It’s indeterminate, it’s under terrible, terrible conditions, and there is nothing you can say about it that says there’s some positive humanity in this. And that’s why it’s such an atrocity."

Feature image: Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) on Facebook