Trapped in Shamrock, Manus Island

by Ione Lewis


Shamrock Compound Shamrock Compound (photo by Refugee Action Coalition).

What stood out about Shamrock Compound was the desperation and hopelessness of the refugees and asylum seekers kept there under guard. There was nothing lucky about Shamrock.

Everyone in Shamrock was traumatised, suicidal and on psychiatric medication. It was not unusual for people to be prescribed an anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, and a tranquilliser all at the same time. There was nothing strong enough to treat detention fatigue and the torture of indefinite detention.

Shamrock was not a clinical setting. It was a container divided into small, dark, claustrophobic rooms and staffed by security guards. Security was not very secure. One man wrote on the whiteboard on his door “Will pay anything for gas”. He wanted to kill himself. He was supplied with a small amount in a clear plastic water bottle by a guard unable to resist the cash.

For some refugees detained in Shamrock for up to six weeks, the security presence and cramped dark spaces triggered their experience of torture in their home country. Their trauma and suicidality markedly increased. For others, it was a continuation of the control exercised over them for years in what Behrouz Boochani has called Australia’s military border complex (2018).

I remember many WhatsApp conversations with people in Shamrock. One man talked away going star-watching outside the city in his home country. One man talked about his torture history in a small cell with electric cattle prods, lasting for weeks. All of them wished to die.

The tragedy of Shamrock was made possible by Australia’s bilateral policy on offshore detention, which commenced on 9 July 2013. Three thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven people were sent to offshore detention in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and about six hundred still remain. Murray, Davison and Schweitzer (2008, p. 10) note the unique cruelty of this policy:

“Australia’s policy on mandatory detention in recent years drew international criticism as a breach of international human rights agreements of which Australia is a signatory (Bruce, 2003). Although many countries use detention for similar purposes, Australia was the only country where detention was mandatory for all individuals entering without valid visas (Silove, Steel, & Mollica, 2001). As a signatory to international human rights treaties, Australia is required to accept refugee claimants when they arrive on shore and to process their claims. However, the use of other countries nearby … was one approach to circumvent this obligation”.

Detention robs people of their autonomy, self-determination and dignity. Deprivation of normal life experiences impacts people’s maturation very negatively. Living skills, executive functioning, and important years for establishing oneself in the world are lost.

Goffman’s description of total institutions captures the intent and experience of indefinite detention: batch living with others treated in the same inhumane way, binary management by security guards of inmates, the inmate role which is intentionally degrading and inhumane, and the institutional perspective (Jones & Fowles, 2008).

The Shamrock response to refugees’ and asylum seekers’ suicidal intent was also shaped by the PNG legal context.  Attempting suicide is a misdemeanor in the Criminal Code (Clause 311), which contributes to a high level of stigma and judgement in the communities from which staff are drawn, and in health systems.

By 2018, when Shamrock was used to warehouse people with severe mental distress, they had been incarcerated for six years. They had lived through harsh lockdowns in the naval detention centre, which for some included solitary isolation in Mike compound. There was the Good Friday 2017 shootings into the detention centre by drunk defense force members, threats and assaults by local Manus people, and the siege and forced removal at the end of 2017, following the PNG Supreme Court’s ruling that detention of refugees was unconstitutional, and life in insecure community houses.

There had been the death of Reza Barati on 17 February 2014 from a head injury caused by two security guards and other staff. The death of Hamid Kehazaei on 5 September 2014 from sepsis from a cut on his foot. The death of Kamil Hussain by drowning on 2 August 2016. The death of Faysal Ishat Ahmed in Brisbane Hospital on 24 December 2016. He had been transported too late for medical treatment. The death of Hamed Shamshiripour on 7 August 2017 by suicide. Rajeev Rajendran died on 2 October 2017 by suicide. Salim Kyawning died on 22 May 2018 after jumping from a moving vehicle.

People detained in Shamrock were medevacced to Australia for treatment later in 2018. The community detention houses and Shamrock now stand empty and “refugee processing” has closed on Manus Island. The memory of Shamrock will endure in the minds of those secured there.


Boochani, B. (2018). No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus prison. Sydney, Australia: Picador.

Criminal Code of Papua New Guinea. Retrieved from$FILE/Papua%20New%20Guinea-%20Criminal%20Code.pdf

Jones, K., & Fowles, A. J. (2008). Total institutions. In J. Johnson & C. De Souza (Eds.). Understanding health and social care: An introductory reader (2nd ed., pp. 103-106). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Murray, K., Davidson, G., and Schweitzer, R. (2008).  Psychological wellbeing of refugees resettling in Australia: A literature review prepared for The Australian Psychological Society. The Australian Psychological Society Ltd.

Ione Lewis

Ione Lewis is a social worker and psychotherapist who has coordinated the Therapy4Refugees network of counsellors, social workers and psychologists since 2016.

On Indefinite Detention

by Amelia Issa

”I feel like I am dying everyday, losing hope and myself in this jail…all I want is a better life for me and my family…”

Having been a refugee myself, I became interested in the struggle that these individuals were enduring in order to find a place to call home. When the role of an advocate for Therapy4Refugees presented the opportunity to help those who were detained, I immediately knew that it was the perfect fit to combine my skills and knowledge in communication and empathy, as I am currently studying a Master of Counseling, as well as my personal experience in my journey in settling in Australia. These refugees and asylum seekers have been forced to flee from their homes, their families and all that they have ever known in order to start a new life in a country so unfamiliar and to an extent, unwelcoming. I felt it important and an obligation to help those who have been detained for a prolonged period of time in supporting and empowering them so they may be able to live purposeful lives whilst living in such destitute and dire conditions.   

Liberty, freedom and justice are three basic fundamental human rights. Indefinite detention of a refugee and asylum seeker have numerous detrimental and demoralizing effects on both the mental and physical state. Imprisoning people who have not committed a crime and have no release date is inhumane, arbitrary and unjust. These individuals flee suffering, persecution, torture, war, violence, and economic hardships in their own country in order to build a better life in a society where human rights, freedoms, and dignity are championed. 

The psychological and physical impact of prolonged or indefinite detention is irrefutable. Reports of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, detention fatigue, hunger strikes, riots, and sexual and physical abuses are prevalent in many of the detention facilities. The grief of indefinite detention affects not only the individual and their families but essentially reflects how we treat those in need. How many more lives will it take for the Australian Government to enact statutory safeguards that protect these vulnerable detainees? Inalienable human rights cannot be suspended or given to some, but are needed to be guaranteed and available for all, especially individuals who need our protection against abuse by those who are more powerful.

The effects detention has on all individuals are numerous, taking a large physical and psychological toll on the person involved. This is especially evident when concerning the detention of children. Basic childhood experiences necessary for development such as learning, education and play are deprived of the child’s lifestyle and will have a negative effect on their growth. The important notion to be highlighted is that extensive trauma and stress has been placed on many asylum seekers and refugees, as they have fled the countries and their livelihoods. This trauma coupled with immediate indefinite detention is a driving force behind the statistics reflecting over a third of children in detention suffering from serious mental issues, in comparison to merely two per cent in the rest of the community. Certain common occurring issues include anxiety, worry, loss of appetite, detention fatigue, depression, withdrawal, avoidance, weight loss and even to certain extent, acts of self-harm. In addition, the impacts on the developing brain include language delays, regressive behaviours, self-stimulation such as headbanging, language delays, difficulties in emotional and cognitive regulations, bed wetting into adolescence and the fear of separation anxiety. The detention of children is not a common practice in progressive parts of the western world and has clearly proven to be absolutely detrimental to the psyche of the child and follow them throughout the remainder of their life.

Young children who leave their homeland in such dire circumstances also leave parts of their identity behind them. Children leave behind their culture, familiarity, loss of innocence, childhood friends, and their community. These children in detention allow for the breakdown of the family unit. Parents are left without the proper tools needed in rearing their children to have the ability to develop the skills necessary to survive and thrive in the real world. Sadly the declining mental and physical health of their parents forces these children to grow up and take on the parental responsibilities.

Lastly, The Australian Human Rights Commission found that there was an ‘unacceptable level of violence, abuse and self-harm’ that was being exposed to children held in detention centres. In only fourteen months, the Australian Psychological Society ‘Submission to Human Rights Commission National Inquiry’ and the Australian Human Rights Commission found that there were:

  • 57 serious assaults
  • 233 assaults involving children
  • 207 incidents of actual self-harm
  • 436 incidents of threatened self-harm
  • 33 incidents of reported sexual assault (the majority involving children); and
  • 183 incidents of voluntary starvation/hunger strikes (with a further 27 involving children)

Australia’s current immigration policies are stripping these children and their families of their basic fundamental human rights. Their right to liberty, freedom, basic healthcare, the right to work, the right to education and so forth. These implications have ongoing consequences that will haunt these individuals throughout their lifetime. Australia’s harsh immigration policies disregards these vulnerable individuals who are seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. There is increasing evidence from around the world that shows the negative, detrimental and long-lasting impact of immigration detention of both the adults and children. Multiple studies conducted have shown that there are insufficient safeguards paid to the safety and protection of such a young population that are incarcerated due to their circumstances. Policies in Australia need to change so that they are in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Keeping these individuals in detention centres contravene these rights and it is the duty of the Australian Governments to support and protect these vulnerable individuals from further stress so that they can have the opportunity to achieve successes in their newfound country they can call home.  

Amelia Issa

Building a Therapeutic Relationship Through the use of Technology

by Shelley Eves

The term ‘therapeutic relationship’ describes the relationship between therapist and client. A strong therapeutic relationship is what makes effective therapy possible and is an important ingredient of any intervention.

An ideal therapeutic environment for developing a strong therapeutic relationship might be envisioned as a quiet, safe space (usually the therapist’s office) with uninterrupted and focussed allotments of time on a regular basis: the ideal environment to show interest, care, and commitment to the therapy.

Given that the client base for T4R is detained on Nauru, PNG or in onshore detention centres, we and our clients do not have the luxury of the ideal therapeutic environment. We rely on communicating with each other across language and bureaucratic barriers using phones and messaging apps. Our messages to each other are often typed through the imperfect ‘google translate’ as a way of bridging language gaps.

Yet strong therapeutic relationships and alliances are still forged. Therapeutic alliance depends on both therapist and client factors. These factors include personal attributes, attitudes toward therapy, and communication skills, among others. The T4R therapeutic relationships have formed through dedication and determination on both sides. We feel an outrage at the duress experienced by, and lack of mental health support offered to, this group of refugees and asylum seekers. This outrage fuels our dedication to making this kind of virtual therapy work. And our clients show us generous amounts of patience, trust, and a huge leap of faith in sharing with us when they have experienced significant long-term abuse by the Australian government. This has cemented a strong alliance and a commitment to the work we are doing together.

Before volunteering with T4R, I would have assumed that the quality of therapy taking place via apps and phone calls would lead to a weaker therapeutic relationship than I experience in my regular, face-to-face therapy work. While there are difficulties in the delivery of therapy via technology, I have been surprised by the strength of the relationships I have formed with my clients, and by the speed at which they formed. There were aspects of using technology that surprisingly sped up the process, rather than slowing it down.

The use of mobile apps has meant that we are communicating with clients at all hours of the day and from wherever we are- at home, at work, even out with friends. For me, this kind of communication is similar to the way I communicate with my friends and family, which increases the feeling of intimacy and familiarity I feel for the T4R clients. In addition, to aid in replacing the nonverbal cues gained from face-to-face therapy I sometimes need to use emojis, photos and GIFS to portray certain emotions and reactions. This again adds to the familiarity of relationships.

This style of communication also meant that the frequency of messages is increased and the access to each other is largely unlimited- we can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It also means the client can access therapeutic assistance in the moment they require it, such as being coached through a panic attack or having in-the-moment advice and support, rather than having to remember information from a session and apply it later.

Another difference between face-to-face and technology-based therapy in this context is the need for increased therapist self-disclosure. Therapist self-disclosure, usually limited and infrequent in therapeutic relationships, is more frequent in this type of work. Due to the justified lack of trust in Australian health workers our clients have developed over time, building trust is necessary to begin and maintain effective therapeutic intervention. I have clients who have experienced abuse, gaslighting and unprofessional behaviour from health workers in Nauru and Manus. Our clients’ mental health has been treated with high doses of antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and sleep medication. Their mental health concerns have been dismissed or even used against them by the authorities. Any chance of success at having a meaningful therapeutic intervention was largely given up on by many of our clients. For this reason, I have been willing to share more about myself and my life to reassure my clients and give them a sense of who I am and why I am volunteering for T4R.

The first time a client asked me to send him a photo of myself, I baulked at how personal that felt and how inappropriate it would be to send a selfie to a client in any other context. However, I realised that in most therapeutic situations, clients know what their therapist looks like and see their face every session! I realised this was a reasonable request and now I feel comfortable sending photos and in return love receiving photos of my clients going about their day. This has led to a stronger therapeutic relationship due to the trust that has been built up and the warmth and familiarity established.

While we would likely enjoy the luxury of being able to regularly meet face-to-face with our clients for therapy, the use of technology in the delivery of therapeutic intervention has not hindered our ability to form strong relationships with our clients, and in some ways has even helped it. I am grateful for the relationships I have with my clients and the hard work they do every day to survive the horrendous situation they are in. They are amazing people and I long for the day they are free.

Shelley Eves
Shelley Eves

Shelley Eves is a psychologist and school counsellor from Sydney

A Story of Two Elections

by Kathryn Khwaja

The November 2001 Federal Election

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Prime Minister John Howard, October 2001 Federal Election Campaign Launch Speech

In August 2001 the Tampa crisis became the catalyst for Australia’s new border protection policy and a central issue in the election campaign to gain re election. The refugee issue became about government action and policy rather than lives at sea or human rights.

Through early 2001, the governing Coalition had been behind Labor in opinion polls. The Tampa and Children Overboard controversies, closely followed by the September 11 terrorist attacks, strongly influenced voters in the November election.

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson book Dark Victory (2004) vividly describe the events around the Tampa and gives the refugees names and voices. It describes how many of Howard’s voters were manipulated into associating refugees as potential terrorists and the “boat people” issue about invasion and national sovereignty. John Howard was eager to reclaim the One Nation vote. Marr and Wilkinson argue that public relations trumped policy with regard to asylum seekers.

The government’s deliberately planned wedge politics were supported by the many Howard supporters in Rupert Murdoch’s media. The government ignored the practices of a civilised, seafaring country, which were to help people stranded at sea.  Marr and Wilkinson describe a lack of press briefings about operational detail from the military.

In August 2001 over 400 refugees were rescued by the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, captained by Arne Rinnan from a stranded Indonesian fishing boat in the Indian Ocean. The refugees were being taken to Australia’s Christmas Island until the Australian Government refused to allow the Tampa to land any of the asylum-seekers.

Many of the asylum-seekers were unwell and Rinnan made repeated requests to Australian authorities for help. Rinnan’s requests were acknowledged but help was not forthcoming so Rinnan decided to sail into Australian waters.

When the Tampa entered Australian waters Australian authorities advised Rinnan that he was breaking the law, and troops were sent to prevent it from reaching Christmas Island.

Howard proceeded to draw up the Border Protection Bill, which would have given the government the power to remove any foreign ship in Australian waters. The Bill was backdated to give legality for the military entering the Tampa.

The Bill was criticised for the powers it was proposing and was defeated in the Senate. By the 2nd September the government had negotiated agreements with Nauru and New Zealand. The Tampa’s asylum-seekers were taken to Nauru from where 131 of them were sent to New Zealand and the remaining were processed on Nauru.

In October 2001 the Children Overboard controversy involved allegations by government ministers that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard to ensure rescue at sea. Again the government used this story to its advantage by associating refugees with this image.

The Senate Select Committee later found that no child had been thrown overboard and the government had known this before the election. Prime Minister Howard maintained that the boat sank due to the irresponsibility of the refuges, which put their children in to the water, though reports stated it was due to the strain of being towed.

The only photos or film released supposedly showed children being thrown overboard. Howard put a press blackout on anyone not directly connected to, and agreeing with, the specific government policies.

The media only had information agreeing with the government’s policies through the government press releases. An election was forthcoming and the “war on terror” from September 11th was linked with the asylum-seeker issue by the government.

After the Tampa crisis the government created the Pacific Solution, which ensured that, asylum-seekers had no automatic right to seek refugee status if they arrived on Australia’s offshore islands, including Christmas Island. Asylum-seekers could also now be processed offshore in Nauru and Manus Island. The Labor Opposition did not oppose these policies.

The Australian Government’s handling of the Tampa affair and implementation of the Pacific Solution attracted international criticism. However, in the six years from 2002, only 23 boats arrived in Australia compared to 43 carrying more than 5000 asylum-seekers in 2001 alone.

John Howard won the election in November 2001 and regarded the Tampa crisis a success. Australia’s system for dealing with refugees had become even harsher and Hanson’s One Nation won no seats.

Since 2001, both the Liberals and Labor have shifted to harsher policies on asylum seekers.

Many refugees from Tampa call New Zealand home, which nearly 20 years later, was a source of hope for refugees in the 2019 federal election.

The May 2019 Federal Election

“We’ve got our borders and the Budget under control.  We make decisions about who comes here based on what’s in Australia’s interests.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, April 2019 speech to Liberal Party figures

Morrison’s governing Liberal party went into the May 2019 election promising to keep the number of migrants coming to Australia each year as refugees at 18,750 and freezing the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next government term.

Morrison also promised to repeal Medevac. From March 2019 the Medevac Law transferred refugees from Nauru and PNG to Australia for emergency medical treatment. Medevac required a medical assessment from two doctors that was reviewed by an independent health advice panel. 

The opposition Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, supported Medevac. Whilst also supporting mandatory detention, Labor pledged to limit the length of detention to 90 days for onshore detainees and supported community detention.

For the approximately 915 detainees living on Manus and Nauru, Labor also promised to explore regional processing arrangements and third country resettlement. Labor pledged to continue the US refugee resettlement deal and agree to New Zealand’s offer to accept some refugees.

Virtually all the polls predicted Labor would win with a 51:49 lead over Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The expectation and mood in Manus and Nauru was somewhat hopeful. Labor promised to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 asylum seekers and increase the country’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 refugees a year.

Surprisingly, in May 2019 the governing Coalition won the election and held onto power. The effect on the refugees was deeply traumatic.

My reflections on the election’s aftermath when working for Therapy4Refugees:

I have never experienced such mass despair and hopelessness from a group of people than in the time after the 2019 election. It was as though things went out of control. The sense of disappointment was keenly felt in Australian Labor politics but with refugees it was as though all hope had gone. My client in Manus spoke of the mood and terrible atmosphere after the shock and disbelief of seeing the coalition government re elected. It was as though nobody there could comfort one another and many refugees were not coming out of their accommodation.

I tried to hold my client and hold on to hope. Attending group supervision felt flat and heavy. Things had suddenly gone from some hope of a resettlement in New Zealand to the shock that, despite the polls, the present government would continue for the years to come. It was a bad enough situation before on Manus but what my client described was a mass deterioration in mental health and an increased atmosphere of desperation. The mood was catching with an atmosphere of suicide contagion; the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviours was leading to an increase in suicides and suicidal behaviours.

Kurdish-Iranian Journalist Behrouz Boochani, who was detained on Manus at the time, told the ABC that around 26 refugees in PNG had self-harmed or attempted suicide since the election result. He said that he had never seen Manus like that or people in that condition and that the local hospital was struggling to manage the cases.

Sri Lankan Shaminda Kanapathi, also detained on Manus, told the Guardian Australia that he feared they would be abandon in PNG forever and that their lives were in limbo.

Kurdish refugee, Benham Satah, said that the healthcare could not cope with the amount of mental health issues and that everyone was deeply depressed.

After the coalition’s win Medevac was reversed. The offer from New Zealand holds today but the Australian government fear that refugees would then enter Australia. The US resettlement policy still slowly continues.

Nearly 20 years after the Tampa crisis, Australia still has prolonged detention after health, identity and security checks have taken place.

Immigration policy has been a major issue at every Australian election since the 2001 election and refugees are directly impacted by these policies.

Paris Aristotle, CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, believes that parts of Australia’s approach to detention would eventually be seen as similar to the removal of indigenous children from their families.

If you took the characteristics of dispossession, separation, isolation, trauma, complete lack of power over your lives and a lack of judicial redress, all of those elements exist in how we are dealing with this at this point of time. (The Age, 2002).

Kathryn Khwaja