Why Is Offshore Detention Popular?


Finally, newmatilda.com has found a good therapist! (You wouldn’t believe the problems we’ve been having lately.) Meet Zoe Krupka, our new psychotherapist-in-residence.

Zoe’s here to answer some questions that have been bugging us tricky ones, like: Why do we vote the way we do? What anxieties lurk behind the headlines? Are politicians abnormal or do we share and mirror their behaviours? If so, is that okay? Who’s got issues here?

Inexpert answers to such weighty questions are tossed around the newmatilda.com office all day long but Zoe is actually qualified to answer them, which is why we’ve asked her to consider the psychology of the news in a new segment for the site: Therapy For News Junkies. In this, her first installment, Zoe considers why Australians are comfortable with the offshore detention of asylum seekers …

John Howard used to send asylum seekers to Nauru. Now, Kevin Rudd is sending boat people to Christmas Island, where over 1600 people are currently being held. 

There is no indication that offshore solutions are to be rolled back in Australia any time soon. So why is it that we continue to make those seeking asylum suffer the torture of isolation and uncertainty? And how can we make sense of this situation emotionally, psychologically and existentially?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to look at other areas in our lives where we employ similar processes. What other "offshore solutions" do we use on a regular basis?

On a miniature scale, call screening and voicemail are brilliant offshore solutions. Our friends, family members, creditors and telemarketers are given a safe, distant space in which to reside for a time until we are ready to receive or to reject them. We can maintain our boundary from a distance which is much less difficult than setting our limits in person. "We will decide which calls we answer and the circumstances under which we answer them!"

This process is given many names in the literature of psychology but essentially it is the creation of a false boundary or wall. We are allowing another person or object to keep out what is undesired until we are sure we are ready to receive it. This is a conscious abdication of personal responsibility. Walls can protect effectively but they can also be harmful, particularly when we don’t acknowledge that we have erected them. Then, it’s like owning a big angry dog and being surprised that people expect you to restrain it when you take it for walks.

National borders are another variety of false boundary. We pretend they are organic and that they exist external to us, when they are really constructions that we have built and must continue to reinforce regularly in order for them to remain meaningful. Otherwise, we all become people, humans, organisms, more connected than we are separate. This connection brings joy to some, but also, I believe, it brings fear to many of us because it has such huge implications. If we allow that these boundaries are of our own making, then we hold responsibility for them: individually, hourly, daily.

Offshore solutions allow us to dodge painful truths. When you are parked at the lights and someone is washing your window, and you’re hunting for change, do you let her see how much is in your wallet, or do you take the money out carefully, giving her what you choose as if it is all that’s there? Part of what allows offshore solutions to continue is that we find it so difficult to allow ourselves to speak openly of our fears. In the case of the woman washing my window, I could have many fears: that she will steal from me, that I will have to face how much more I have in my wallet than she has in hers and that I can find no way to defend this inequality. Ultimately, I have to recognise that I have a choice, and that often I choose not to share enough.

Efforts to separate ourselves physically from the distress of others may also be linked to our own experiences of disempowerment, betrayal and displacement.

For most people growing up in a patriarchal culture, our experience has been either to be devalued or to witness the life-threatening devaluation of some lives in comparison to others. We have come to see social hierarchies and their inherent betrayals as unquestioned elements of everyday life. Following this reasoning, to criticise offshore detention is also to question the fabric of our social structure. Offshore solutions then, whether personal, interpersonal or social, can be understood as strategies to manage the distress involved in living in a culture where people endure trauma and exclusion as a matter of course.

And then there is our current negative understanding of anxiety.

Quite simply, we are no longer allowed to be anxious or uncertain. An entire pharmaceutical and psychological industry turns on the management of anxiety. Whether we are mindfully meditating, taking anti-anxiety medication, or working on becoming more decisive, as a culture we have demonised the experience of anxious uncertainty. Just try for a day, when asked how you are, to answer "anxious". We tend to respond to this in a variety of ways, the subtext of which is usually "Shut up".

Finally, part of the tantalising appeal of offshore detention is that it allows us to more easily project our fears onto others. Projection is, essentially, a kind of paranoia. It helps us to feel less anxious by allowing us some expression of unacceptable thoughts and feelings without having to be aware that they are in fact our own. Instead, we can attribute them to others. This then gives us permission to actively fear, to monitor and to exclude these dangerous and undesirable people.

In the case of offshore detention, we can project our feelings of aggression and hatred, even our hidden desire to be part of a close family, onto those seeking asylum. This leaves us free to experience those feelings as coming from outside ourselves. We’ve all witnessed someone we know criticising someone else, and suddenly being gripped by the thought, "Look in the mirror, sunshine."

That those onto whom we project all these feelings remain isolated in some way is essential for the process of projection to work effectively.

If they, the stranded, were here in our communities, we would be faced with their humanity and our projections would undergo some blurring. They may even fail to show us the picture we were hoping to see. The picture we in fact created.

So what do we do? We don’t let them in. We get someone else to answer the door and say we’re not home.

Why do we act the way we do? What’s the psychology behind the news? If you’ve got a question for Zoe, post it in the comments below and we’ll pass it on.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.