Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Refugee Crisis in the Camps: Now Who Could Have Predicted That?

The media treat it as something of a surprise that the ungrateful inmates of our refugee camps are rioting and committing suicide. But it does make for great headlines and, let’s face it, that’s mainstream journalism these days: the ‘gotcha’ rather than real investigation. Well, it is no surprise to psychologists who, had government taken the time to seek some good advice, could have easily predicted these events. In fact, if a research psychologist had wanted to design an experiment confirming the negative impact of incarcerating people, they could have done no better than the politicians and bureaucrats with the fiasco they have invented. The experiment has it all: desperate people; close confinement; razor wire; remote locations; removal of dignity; an extended but variable process that engenders hopelessness; an unnatural existence; and overcrowding.

It has been long known in psychology that even relatively innocuous forms of incarceration cause psychological problems: an abnormal situation creates abnormal behaviour in and of itself. We know that guards become abusive towards inmates when they are in this unique position of power. The abuse of the powerless is not restricted to psychopaths or other similarly inadequate personalities. Mr and Mrs Average are quite capable of abnormal cruelty when given the opportunity. We see this in wartime, concentration camps, prisons and the now defunct (thankfully) psychiatric hospitals of the first half of the twentieth-century.

Any first year psychology student knows that you cannot expect people to behave normally when they are placed in abnormal situations. And we could expect people to riot when they are placed in a threatening situation. We can expect people to kill themselves or develop psychoses when their disbelief turns to despair turns to hopelessness. We can expect to see children rapidly whither on the vine when normality is stripped from them: they have few defences to protect themselves.

Successive Australian governments have failed the compassion test, as have we, the Australian people for not urging a humanitarian approach to this problem. This does not mean allowing illegal entry to our country. It does not mean opening our doors. But it does mean having a process for dealing with the problem that is in keeping with the mores of a twenty-first century civil society rather than those of the dark ages: a society that bases its decisions on evidence rather than false and convenient belief. I wonder if we are ready yet and is there a politician out there that is prepared to rise above the sorcery that is popularism?