The Trauma Machine: Volunteer Experiences in Australian Immigration Detention Facilities

Thesis Abstract

This thesis is based on in-depth interviews with volunteers who support asylum seekers in Australia. It compares the experiences of volunteers who visit asylum seekers in immigration detention facilities with those of volunteers who support asylum seekers in the community. This comparison foregrounds the impact of institutional technologies not only on detained asylum seekers, but also on their supporters.

While Australia’s detention regime has received considerable academic attention in recent years, few scholars have examined the experiences of volunteers. The testimonies presented here provide a valuable window onto the operation of power within Australia’s detention system. They show that the Kafkaesque mechanisms through which detention centres produce powerlessness, disruption and emotional distress in asylum seekers also extend to negatively impact volunteers.

The traumatising dimensions of Australia’s detention network, this thesis argues, should be understood not as evidence of the system’s dysfunction but as indicators of its key purposes. In the context of Australia’s deterrence policy, the production of anguish is politically expedient as it damages networks of resistance and support. In making this argument, this thesis dialogues with broader scholarship regarding carceral institutions and the deprivations and frustrations of imprisonment.

In addition to contributing to the literature regarding the negative impacts of immigration detention, this thesis challenges two prominent critiques of care-based volunteer work. It provides evidence to contest the charge that friendship programs are not ‘political’ because they lack universality and do not entail a structural critique. It also disputes the claim that this form of volunteering reduces to an exercise in privilege and emotional gratification.

Thesis Submitted: 16 November 2017
PhD Awarded: 1 March 2018  

The thesis is available HERE