The Impact of Deterrence on Victims of Torture


Australia’s refugee status determination (RSD) system has been explicitly focused on deterring asylum-seeking since at least 2012 when the former government’s ‘Expert Panel’ was tasked with selecting strategies to prevent asylum-seekers making boat journeys to Australia. Today, deterrence covers the entire migration process. Its impact on victims and survivors of torture is rarely mentioned among the costs and benefits.

Chronic fear and alarm

According to Guidelines developed by the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, torture creates ‘a sense of terror and chronic alarm’ as the inescapability and unpredictability of its violence, works to convince victims of perpetrators’ omnipotence and their own dependence upon them.

Chronic fear follows asylum-seekers and refugees who are housed in offshore processing centres because of ongoing safety risks in those places. Organisations given permission to visit the centres have documented intimidation, bullying, harassment, and physical and sexual assault from guards and local civilians. The Moss Report also concluded that men, women and children had been sexually and physically assaulted, while other agencies including UNHCR and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have reported seriously deficient living conditions in the centres.

For torture survivors who are able to apply for asylum in Australia, anxiety and chronic fear are exacerbated by laws designed to remove any expectation that outcomes are predictable or that protection will be provided. The message is that protection is a privilege and not a right.

For instance, Migration Act 1958 initially bars irregular arrivals from applying for a visa, requires them to be taken to an offshore processing centre and if/when they are onshore, provides for their mandatory detention. The Minister can allow them to remain in Australia, live in the community and apply for a protection visa when there is a ‘public interest’ in doing so but this places asylum-seekers in a position where their freedom and safety depends on the Minister’s favour.

Laws around the treatment of asylum-seekers are also frequently changed with retrospective effect, leading to understandable feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

Insecurity of status is used as a deterrence measure. As of 2 January 2017, only 6,610 of the 30,814 asylum-seekers who arrived irregularly between 2012 and 2014 had had their protection visa applications finalised, according to DIBP figures. Most of those still waiting have been released from detention onto bridging visas that can be cancelled, resulting in their re-detention, if they breach any law, engage in activities deemed anti-social or disruptive or fail to attend interviews. Even when they are found to be refugees they can only be granted a temporary protection visa (TPV), rather than permanent protection visa (PPV) making them reapply after 3 or 5 years.

In this way, the legal regime undermines any sense that the Australia can be relied on for protection. It places asylum-seekers and refugees in a position of constant uncertainty about the most fundamental issues of personal safety, generating, according to the Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS), realistic anxiety over being returned, feelings of paranoia and continuing persecution, destruction of hope and further traumatisation.

Disrupted Connections

The second effect of torture identified by the Guidelines is the systematic disruption of victims’ attachments to family, friends, religion and culture, creating a ‘deep sense of loss designed to shatter the sense of continuity and identity’.

Again, the deterrence regime exacerbates this. Offshore processing and resettlement bans separate families whose members have travelled independently and are therefore subject to different rules. The creation of different ‘cohorts’ also divides cultural communities and encourages mistrust, jealousy and suspicion among those would ordinarily be a source of support.

A further significant source of attachment disruption is the removal of avenues for family reunion. The Expert Panel found that family reunion for refugees was contributing to irregular movements. As a consequence, TPV holders have no access to family reunion, while PPV holders can only access highly expensive family stream visas, and their applications are placed in the lowest processing priority, effectively meaning that they are only processed if the PPV holder becomes an Australian citizen. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees, including unaccompanied minors, have no family in Australia and no realistic hope of being reunited with them in the future. They suffer social isolation, intense worry about their family’s safety, and guilt.

Destruction of central values

The Guidelines tell us that torture threatens to destroy victims’ sense of the central values of human existence, including trust, dignity and the value of life. This effect is prolonged by the way that the immigration bureaucracy interacts with asylum-seekers and by fast-track RSD.

The bureaucratisation of immigration is always depersonalising, but long processing delays, retrospective legislative changes and the law’s lack of attention to applicants’ human rights exacerbate it. Under the fast track system, after waiting 3-5 years for permission to apply for a TPV, an asylum-seeker will at some point receive a letter ‘inviting’ them to apply and stating that they must do so within 60 days. The form they need to lodge is written in English and is 41 pages long. For the vast majority, funded legal assistance is not available and they are warned that if they present incorrect or false information, their applications will be denied. Asylum-seekers report that this communicates a message of inevitable failure; an intent to ensure as few people as possible receive a positive outcome.

For torture survivors, these factors result in a loss of optimism, and trust in Australia as safe and rights-respecting country. It plays directly into the effects of torture and compounds its harm.

Humiliation and degradation

Finally, the Guidelines report that torture creates a sense of shame and guilt as physical boundaries are invaded, the right to privacy violated, basic functions closely controlled, and individuals forced to make impossible choices.

The overall message of Australia’s deterrence-focused policies is that irregular arrivals are unwanted, and that they are less worthy of care and protection than refugees who enter with a temporary visa or through resettlement programs. Sometimes – for instance when refugees with permanent residence are denied access to family reunion – the message is that their rights are worth so little that they can be offset by the very slim chance that denying them might prevent someone in the future from wanting to seek asylum here. The message is compounded by the language political leaders use to describe asylum-seekers – law-breakers (illegals), cheats (queue-jumpers) and threats. These messages compound torture survivors’ shame, humiliation and traumatisation.


Australia’s deterrence-focused asylum and refugee regime exemplifies law and policy that exacerbates and prolongs the harmful effects of torture because protection has ceased to be its primary purpose. Understanding this highlights the incompatibility of deterrence and protection as policy objectives. Law can certainly be used to deter asylum-seeking but it will do so at the expense of protecting victims of torture.


This post originally formed part of a presentation to the Expert Workshop on Torture Victims in the Context of Migration: Identification, Redress and Rehabilitation, hosted by the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in Geneva, April 2017. The author participated on behalf of The Humanitarian Group.

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