‘Advocates’, self harm and manipulation

11 Jul

When an asylum seeker breaks a piece of wire off the fence and sews their lips together with dental floss, it is an act of both self-harm and protest.

Tony Abbott has been heavily criticised for saying that he won’t be ‘held over a moral barrel’ by people who threaten self-harm on Christmas Island. I don’t feel sorry for Prime Ministers very often but in this case there is an element of truth in what he said.

I recall the situation vividly. It was late-February 2013 and I was the Director of the Nauru detention centre. Eight asylum seekers had sewn their lips together as part of a wider protest that was being organised by three key ‘ringleaders’. These ringleaders hadn’t sewn their own lips – they would never do that to themselves. Just as they weren’t prepared to jump the fence during mass escapes. Their tactics were to encourage, even coerce, other asylum seekers to do things for them.

These ringleaders, asylum seekers themselves, were in regular contact with a well-known Australian refugee ‘advocacy’ group, being coached on how to attract the best media attention. The key spokesperson for the group had a reputation inside the department for being involved in all sorts of coordinated protests. The group always seemed to be the first to know about incidents in detention centres and always seemed to be better informed about what was happening than even the Immigration department.

Threats to self-harm are a win-win for these ‘advocates’. They wedge the government, making them either look callous for ignoring the asylum seeker’s cry for help or heartless for describing the behaviour as manipulative.

Of course, not all self-harm is like this. The vast majority of self-harm incidents in detention are related to a person’s mental health. Given the stories of trauma and hopelessness suffered by most asylum seekers, this shouldn’t surprise us.

The Immigration Department’s policy on mental health doesn’t allow immigration officers to make the distinction between protest-related and mental health-related self-harm. They are all reported as self-harm and all treated as serious.

Of course, those asylum seekers who are coerced into harming themselves as part of a protest may also be suffering an underlying mental health condition. After all, the ringleaders prey on those asylum seekers who don’t have the confidence to stand up to them. So reporting those incidents as mental-health related is important.

But this doesn’t take away from the fact that lip sewing, superficial cutting or voluntary starvation are contain an element of protest. So Tony Abbott is right to call the behaviour out for what it is – harrowing and manipulative.

So if not all advocates are the angels they’d like us to think they are, is this behaviour common? Thankfully not. Most advocates are more interested in fighting for the vulnerable. They work professionally and strategically (and non-violently) to highlight how horrible these detention centres really are. Their main goal is to point out that, on our watch, the government are using the world’s most vulnerable people as a political football to try and fleece us into believing their ‘strong border control’ message.

It is only the radical fringe who take that a step further. Ironically, in their attempts to advance their own political purposes, they fall into the same category as the government they’re railing against – being willing to harm the most vulnerable for a political win.

20 Responses to “‘Advocates’, self harm and manipulation”

  1. Claire Bell July 12, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    Well said, Greg. This clarifies the situation well. I will pass it on to my friends.

    • Marilyn July 12, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

      Actually it’s bollocks, it makes refugees seem as if they can’t think for themselves and takes away the last trace of autonomy they have, the use of their own bodies to protest.

  2. Liz Thompson July 14, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    If I had a blog, I would post this response there and link. But I don’t, so sorry, this will be long. I realise that is poor netiquette and for that I apologise:

    Even with all the “not all” disclaimers, this piece appears to continue a theme of the erasure of the agency of those in the camps. The idea that protest leaders don’t sew their own lips, don’t jump over the fences – what nonsense! The history of protest activity in Woomera and Baxter, Curtin etc – a history often whitewashed by the self-congratulation of white activists, but nonetheless one that exists – belies this narrative. The elected delegates in Woomera were often hunger strikes but also spokespeople. It was a delegate who threw himself onto the razor wire at Woomera – precisely as a message that he would not ask anyone to do what he could not, not the simple “act of desperation” it is often framed as. During this period, delegates put their names to actions during which they put their own bodies on the line, back in the days when this would not disqualify them forever from getting a visa. Of course there are also times when people collectively decide they don’t want a delegate or spokesperson to sew their lips because they do want them to do the talking to media or negotiations with the department: difficult to do when your lips are sewn together. Is that really so difficult to understand? Seriously: try doing media or negotiations with the department with your lips sewn together and then come back to me with tales of these terrible manipulative delegates or organisers, too cowardly to take these actions themselves.

    Of course, the changes to the Migration Act making any offence committed in detention or during escape from detention of sufficient seriousness to fail the character test (no visa for you unless you behave in detention) means it is perilous for delegates or other protest organisers or participants to put their names to their actions. That is why you are able to get away with this – the delegates and organisers in detention aren’t able to put their names to media releases, or speak to media in the same way. Detainees speak collectively of course and write media statements, but it is far too risky for individuals to be named in relation to protest action. They can’t afford to be framed as organisers, “troublemakers” because that could exclude them from ever getting a visa. Just being a delegate puts people in the spotlight. Just a few days before Reza was killed on Manus, I had interpreters tell me quietly to warn one of my clients who was a delegate for one of the nationality groups in one compound that if there was any violence, he would likely be targeted by G4S because the department considered him a troublemaker, as an outspoken delegate. Its why I was so disturbed when one of my clients was interrogated by my team leader about what he was saying to other guys in the compound. I too thought that the violence that was going to come would be targeted, a direct response to protests, an attempt to strategically beat down protest leaders and organisers, to punish delegates, they way the department used to pick them out of punishment, transfer and stints in isolation in Baxter. Of course, as we now know, this is not what went down on Manus at all.

    Your little anecdote about Nauru may or may not be true – it is difficult to give it much credence given you won’t name the advocates allegedly involved and given it seems to be a case of you making ill-informed assumptions about the private conversations between advocates and detainees that you are, as you admit, not privy to. But true or not, this intervention serves to contribute to the erasure of political agency of people in the camps: to further belittle, infantilise and dehumanise – framing delegates or organisers as ruthless stand-over men and others as passive recipients of the manipulations of advocates or “ringleaders”. Is it that you think that women, mothers, teenagers, children, are incapable of the acts of bravery and sacrifice that go into making decisions to put ones own body – the only weapon they often have – on the line? The slogan “with our bodies against the camps” is a political commitment to “by any means necessary” but also describes the limited tools people in detention have at their disposal.

    None of this is to say that activists and advocates haven’t done stupid, self-serving shit in the name of detainees and they won’t continue to do so. I have always been more than happy to critique the ASRC or Ian Rintoul or others for various decisions they have made over the years, for their underlying political position, whatever. It is clear these are the people you are talking about, though you seem to lack the courage to name them. But convincing people to self-harm? No evidence for that at all. In fact, the opposite.
    Because protest leaders, organisers, activists in the camps are in close contact with such people and NOT the department (surprise, surprise), why does this mean that they are being manipulated into self harm by them? Where is the evidence?

    Why do you have so little regard for the political capacities of those in the camps – for their capacity to make their own decisions, even under intense duress? Is this a way of coping with the vicarious trauma of dealing with traumatised people and being part of the system that traumatises them? That I totally understand. I’ve met many migration agents who unfortunately cope with detention cases in this way: alternatively infantalising their clients, or framing them as super-agentic, hyper-manipulative: essentially trying to find answers other than in the system itself for why people engage in these confronting acts, why people are angry, why people aren’t grateful. It is otherwise hard to digest walking into these detention centres, acting like you do a normal job, acting like you are not participating in a horrific system of psychological torture with every key stroke. Its certainly the way my team leader at Manus seemed to respond to our clients: they were all super-manipulative liars, stand-over men, because they weren’t terribly grateful for the crappy service we provided to them, because they had opinions about their treatment which they were not shy about expressing, because they didn’t trust us, because they didn’t just accept what we said to them, because they had strategies for survival and political intervention that we weren’t in on. I imagine its how he copes with or justifies to himself, his decision to side with DIBP over his clients, to assist in their manipulation of information to the Senate inquiry into what happened on Manus. I get it. Its pretty unconscionable, but I have had enough exposure to it now to begin to understand the thought process that goes in to becoming that variety of arsehole.

    When I was on Manus, the guys asked me for my opinion on the protests. Should they continue them? What would be the impact? They asked for my opinion simply because they felt I might be in a position to give them information they couldn’t access themselves (what will be the department’s reaction? will the CAPS be removed from the island? will interviews stop?). But they made their own decisions, of course. Do you honestly believe that people in the camps just do what these people they have never met tell them to do? The consequences for detainees are too far-reaching for them to give that kind of power over. These people are making life-changing decisions under constrained circumstances.

    This is not a plea to not say bad things about refugee advocates: I say fire at will, if you’ve got something to back it up: I always do. But this slanderous crap about “troublemakers” in detention? No, no, no.

    I would like to know why you frame what you acknowledge as political activity by detainees as “harrowing and manipulative”? What evidence is there for coercion by others into self harm? And finally, what exactly do you suggest detainees do in the alternative – write letters to their local member?

    • Greg_LakeAU July 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi Liz. To respond to some of the substantive claims you made, here are some thoughts…

      Firstly, I am the first person to point out that many of the ‘ringleaders’ (as the department describes them in incident and intelligence reports) are involved in this behaviour because they have broken lives and stories of trauma. Not all asylum seekers are angels (just like not all advocates are), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of protection. Thankfully a personality test isnt one of the things that is taken into consideration when assessing refugee claims.

      I also agree that there are many many detainees who have a great deal of self-agency, especially when it comes to expressing their concerns about the conditions of their detention (i.e. not so much the conditions IN detention as the reason (or lack thereof) that they’re there).

      However, if there is one common theme from all the time I spent working in the Immigration Detention environment, its that the long-term detention of people, even the most intelligent, politically savvy and self-driven people, grossly undermine’s a person’s self-agency over time. That is, institutionalisation is a VERY real thing. No it doesn’t effect everyone in the same way and no it doesn’t stop some (even many) detainees from continuing to have a voice. But its a real thing nonetheless. And its those who have lost self-agency through institutionalisation (and often other mental health issues) that these advocates prey on.

      Furthermore, I thought my post was quite clear that I wasn’t talking about all (or even most) situations of self-harm (or threats), just some. Like I wasn’t talking about all advocates, not every ‘ringleader’ is the same – some are absolutely prepared to get involved in the action themselves (as you note).

      That said, I do know of a number of situations where people who have escaped, self-harmed or been involved in other things like that have then shared that they were coerced into it. Its a real thing, even if you don’t believe it.

      On the lip-sewing thing, as an aside, one of the more personally challenging parts of my role as Director on Nauru was writing a report back to head office explaining which of the 8 men’s lips were sown so tight that they couldn’t speak and which ones could still communicate through the sutures. The idea that people can’t speak through sewn lips is a furfy.

      Finally, one of the things I’ve found interesting in the media coverage is that the names of a few particular ‘advocates’ have immediately hit the discussion after my comments about how some are involved in this sort of coercive behaviour. I have never named any directly myself.

      One of the reasons for this is that often its individuals who are engaged in this behaviour, not all members of the organisations they represent. That is, I don’t want to name the organisations because some of the broader work of those orgs is good. Naming key members or activists would only hamper that broader good work.

      Secondly, some of the information that I was privy too was security rated. That is, it would be criminal for me to divulge it. As someone who continues to work hard to maintain my own professional integrity, I’m not prepared to release that information as a result.

      I realise that this means I’m relying on people to trust me – and for many people who don’t know me, I realise that’s a big ask. But I had to make the calculation – is it more important that people are made aware of the very real (and all too common) use of these tactics, even if it means copping the flack personally or should I just keep quiet? In the end, I made the decision I did and I stand by it. I fully appreciate that not everyone will agree with the call I made, but my experience tells me that in this space, that’s always going to be the case.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. Lets continue the discussion one way or another – constructive, critical dialogue in a professional and genuine way is exactly what’s called for here. Where we don’t agree, lets keep working through the issues.

      Greg (formely posting as ‘lakeliveslife’ for some reason)

      • redlizt July 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

        You say people have talked about being coerced into these actions: when have they said this to you? While you were working as a DIAC staffer? Surely you can understand why people would say that to you, true or not, given the character test threats?

        Granted, re: lip-sewing, though the guys I knew years ago always did it up pretty tight and often got someone else to do the spokesperson role for that reason. The organisation of each protest is different I guess. However the point remains that the reasons some people appear to take different roles in demonstrations are not necessarily clear to you and I think you are jumping to conclusions about that that are not necessarily supported by the evidence.

        The reason people name names, I suspect, and the request that you do so, is a reflection of the fact that people think its pretty cowardly to put this out there without any evidence and without anyone who could conceivably respond. If you are accusing any of the people who are considered high profile refugee advocates – such as Ian Rintoul or Pamela Curr – then say so. If there is actually any person you could name who has ever done what you are suggesting, let’s hear about them. But I suspect you have no names and no actual evidence whatsoever – just a skewed perception based on your subject position as someone that most of those detained would not trust. You were an immigration official – do you really think that people would answer you honestly when asked about their culpability and involvement in protest action which could see them lose all hope of a visa?

        I think it is dishonest of you to suggest that your reasons for not naming people is “for the cause”. Seriously – either put names out there so that people can respond to it, justify, explain, deny, whatever – or acknowledge that perhaps you have put 2 and 2 together and come up with 5. Its nice that you care about a certain idea of professional integrity: extend that courtesy to others then. Name names, give people the opportunity to respond, or withdraw the accusation. That would appear to me to be both professional and courteous.

      • Greg_LakeAU July 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

        Well, I think I’ve explained why I’m not going to name names, but if it helps at all, I have raised my concerns with the organisations privately first and with no effect.

        On the issue of whether or not I would know about what happens in a centre and what might motivate people to be involved in protest (or tell me certain things as an immigration officer), all I can say is that i fundamentally disagree and would put it to you that, while some Immi officers are idiots (as in any organisation), there are many public servants working in this space who have a great deal of rapport with asylum seekers and the notion that they are untrusted is fairly naive.

  3. redlizt July 14, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    ugh – I suck at the internet. Now I posted it twice and don’t know how to delete it!

    • lakeliveslife July 14, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Haha. Its ok. Want me to remove one of them?

      (Thanks for your other comments btw)


      • redlizt July 14, 2014 at 11:33 am #

        yes please – the one with my full name is better cos that provides some context I think, given Manus references…

      • lakeliveslife July 14, 2014 at 11:37 am #

        Done. :)

      • Greg_LakeAU July 14, 2014 at 11:47 am #

        Hey Liz, out of interest, in what capacity were you on Manus?

  4. redlizt July 14, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    I was there as a Claims Assistance Provider – essentially a migration agent but the department didn’t want us using that terminology, so they gave us a catchy new acronym to work with

    • Greg_LakeAU July 14, 2014 at 11:59 am #

      Aren’t they funded in a similar way to IAAAS? In other words, you were their as a tax-payer funded service?

      • redlizt July 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm #


  5. Liz Thompson July 15, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

    The naivety, Greg, lies in believing that because you consider yourself to be smart, or good at your job, that this somehow alters your subject position as the immigration case officer who is almost NEVER trusted, particularly by those protesting their conditions of detention. Its got nothing to do with being an idiot and everything to do with being a DIAC employee. Many of my IAAAS clients don’t trust me either – and why should they? I can develop rapport, sure. But believe that they can or do trust me just cos I reckon I’m awfully good at what I do and I care? No, I’m not that silly and I don’t think I’m so special that I can magically overcome the natural and warranted suspicious that those in detention have of those who make their living out of that industry, no matter how lovely and clever I might be. I’ve worked with a whole bunch of DIAC case officers who I think are excellent at their role and seem to take the role seriously. But to be trusted? By detainees? By detainees engaging in protest against, you know, the department you work for? With the character test in place?? I think that is awfully naive.

    • Greg_LakeAU July 15, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

      Yes Liz, I suspect you and I take very different approaches and have quite different attitudes towards our work.

      • Phil Cook August 2, 2014 at 10:19 am #

        Sorry Greg – I am a little unclear on what these different attitudes are you are talking about. Could you please clarify what is your approach and attitude towards your work? Do you think detainees trusted you?

  6. Phil Cook August 2, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    I think this is a terribly biased piece of writing. I have two questions I would like you to clarify – even if you can’t give specifics for security clearance reasons:
    1. Do you have actual evidence of advocates encouraging people to self harm in certain circumstances?
    2. If so, In what proportion of self harm cases does this apply?

    I know i have been in communication with asylum seekers who self harmed as a form of protest. And they did communicate this to me in order to ask me to assist in getting their message out to the media/social media. It is unfortunate that the media and Australia is not terribly interested in simple stories of injustice – people being locked up without charge or trial for indefinite periods – but they will report on a big protest action involving graphic self harm. It does not take advocates to tell this to asylum seekers – they can see the only way to get attention to their situation. Although I have never suggested or hinted at self harm, I have been asked by asylum seekers whether I think they should take these actions – my response has always been to take care of themselves, think of the big picture ie you won’t be in here forever, and to make your own decision. Do you have evidence that others don’t act in similar ways? Because I don’t and I work directly with these people.

    On the case of ‘ringleaders’ I can also have an example where I know for a fact Dept has used this term erroneously. I am in close contact with one young man who was involved in a self harm protest – using his body as the only tool he has to express his frustration. Through a FOI request on his behalf, we know that the Dept described this as an act of following a ringleader. This shows clearly how little insight Dept employees often have into the lives of those they detain. This young man is one of the most stubborn and strong willed young men I have ever met. You couldn’t coerce him into anything! He himself has also laughed at this assertion.

    So, unless you can tell us that you had evidence of this coercion in some concrete form, it seems far more likely to me that as a Dept employee, you didn’t have as much insight into the private lives of the detains and advocates as you believed.

    • Greg_LakeAU August 2, 2014 at 10:21 am #

      Thanks for your comment Phil.

      To answer your questions in simple terms Phil, 1. Yes absolutely – from witnessing it myself, from (secure) reports and from evidence given to me by both advocates and asylum seekers (both while I worked for the department a and after my resignation. And 2. In a relatively small number of cases. The situation like the ones you describe are also relatively rare, but probably still more common than what I’m describing. But just because there’s only a few cases (over a period of about 5 years), doesn’t mean it doesn’t concern me. But as I say in the post, the general truth is that self harm is always complicated.

      • Phil Cook August 2, 2014 at 11:28 am #

        So if this only happens in a small number of cases why not write about the bigger issue. That there are many incidents of people being so desperate that they are willing/forced to do such horrendous acts of self harm. Surely the main story here is that we have set up such a terrible system that people will do things like sew their lips or starve themselves.

        It seems to me that this blog is an attempt to absolve yourself of some of the justifable guilt you feel over your key role in helping to enforce a policy of such horrible injustice that it results in mental illness and self harm. By your admission, advocates are not the main problem, the system and those who get paid to enforce the system are the problem.

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