An essay by Sarah Ruby

Domestic and family abuse is currently at the forefront of our national discourse, due to the horrifying murder of a Brisbane mother and her three beautiful children, by a man who decided that if they weren’t going to live ‘his way’, they had no right to live.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, I know I was only one of thousands of women around Australia who watched the aftermath of the attack with that sinking feeling in our stomachs, the familiar internal refrain of “that could have been me”- or, for some of us, “that could be me one day”. I certainly never expected to live to see 2020.

There is something frightening, impossible to prevent, and without and end-date happening in communities around Australia. The victims are men, women and children. They are hidden from sight, intimidated into silence, afraid of the consequences if they speak out. I’ve witnessed one such threat personally.

Therefore, with the freedom I have to do so, I believe it is necessary for me to inform the Australian public of this fact- the men, women and children in immigration detention in this country, and their friends and family, are being subjected to domestic abuse. The perpetrator is the Honourable Minister for the Department of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Allow me to tell you what I’m watching unfold, from the perceptive of a domestic abuse survivor- men and women who have left situations of domestic abuse can usually, at some point in the future, identify the key elements that define the situation as abusive. In my case, that took years of therapy. Hopefully I can save you that time.

Emotional abuse- being belittled, dehumanised, being told at every turn that what you’re doing is wrong, that you’re a bad person or a bad parent, name-calling.

Financial abuse- having your access to money restricted, not being allowed to work or study, having your spending examined and essential items withheld from you.

Physical abuse- including, but not limited to, assault.

Sexual abuse- including, but not limited to, sexual assault.

Restriction of movement- being told where you’re allowed to go, and when. Having a curfew. Being isolated from family and friends.

Medical abuse and reproductive coercion- not being allowed to keep your medical visits or records private, being denied medical treatment, being denied contraception.

Gaslighting- blaming complaints about the above on your ‘mental health issues’, telling other people you’re unstable or that you’ve harmed your children, in order to isolate you from anyone who might support you.

Let’s examine how these play out in Immigration Detention.

Firstly, it needs to be said- the ‘kids off Nauru’ campaign was successful, but the vast majority of these children are now living in Community Detention.

In both custodial and community detention scenarios, the abuse criteria play out as follows:

Emotional abuse – parents are told by Australian Border Force caseworkers and Immigration staff that they’re ‘bad parents’ for bringing their children to Australia. The children are told that their parents made a mistake in bringing them to Australia, that this will never be their home, and that they have no future here. I witnessed one speaker-phone call with a minor in which an Australian Border Force caseworker told her that if she continued to complain about her unsuitable accommodation (strange men were frequently at the home, on one occasion under the influence, because the owner was allowing it- I physically removed a drunk man from their backyard), ‘the Minister might reconsider his generosity in allowing you to live in the community’. This was a threat to put the child back into Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and I immediately cut the call.

Financial abuse – nobody in detention is allowed to work. Families in Community Detention rely on food banks and charities in order to survive. When rotting fruit and vegetables are all that can be procured, mothers cut the rotten bits off, and freeze them. Once teenagers turn eighteen, they are no longer allowed to study in any form. Young women whose mothers fled their country of origin so that they can receive a tertiary education are relegated to sitting at home, unable to work or study.

Physical abuse – Beatings from guards in detention are common, and have always been. Beatings from other detainees are a risk, some claim at the behest of the guards. What you won’t know, however, is that refugee children were beaten on Nauru by locals. One boy I know, as a ten year old, was badly beaten by an adult Nauruan man for trying to assist a child half his age who was also being beaten.

Sexual abuse – for some detention guards, sexual assault is a game. They target Muslim men during pat downs, then laugh, knowing homosexual activity is considered ‘haram’; I don’t know a single detained woman who wants to fall pregnant. Everyone identifies as too traumatised to care for a newborn.

An Australian Citizen is being repeatedly hospitalised against her will because her carer, her partner, has been detained. His detention has been officially declared arbitrary (yet in 2019, a man who murdered his wife walked free from Immigration Detention).

Gaslighting: You’ve all seen the claims of ‘asylum seekers being coached to self-harm by advocates’, ‘parents harming their children to come to Australia’. Not a shred of evidence has ever been offered, or found, to support these claims. After two years of searching extensively for proof of these claims from the Government, my only findings are:

children being bullied at school due to the stigma of having been a refugee on Nauru – bullied not only by students, but by teachers, and parents of other children.

I witnessed a speaker-phone call between a caseworker and teenage boy, where the boy was refusing to sleep in his allocated granny flat because the men in the house at the front had repeatedly accosted him, his mother, their friends, and threatened to shoot him – the caseworker told him that he couldn’t sleep in a car because ‘there could be snakes’. My own son is the same age – 16; if I forced him into an unsafe living situation, with an active threat of violence, I would be rightly investigated by Family and Children’s Services.

I wish I didn’t know any of this. I wish I could go all ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and erase what I’ve seen over the past five years. The reality is, I cannot.

We are taught as a society to speak up when we see domestic abuse being perpetrated. As a survivor, I strongly believe this principle must be upheld.

So, Australia, I must inform you: in my opinion, from both lived experience and what I’ve witnessed, the biggest perpetrator of domestic abuse against men, women and children, is your elected Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

What will you do about it?