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I sat through the screening of this documentary with my stomach in knots and a heavy weight on my chest. I asked myself, ‘Why did I come?’

Vicarious trauma—‘a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers’ perceived meaning and hope.’ (Wikipedia)

I sat in the darkened church hall feeling heavier and heavier.

My vicarious trauma was not connected with the actual stories of persecution that I’d heard from asylum seekers, or that I was seeing on the screen.

My vicarious trauma was associated with the way in which the Australian government was dealing with asylum seekers, with the intentional and prolonged abuse that occurs when people’s hope is taken away—i.e. because you came by boat you are:
• Illegal
• you’ll never be resettled in Australia
• even if you came to Australia before the change in policy you’ll never be able to bring your families
• we just want you to go home regardless of the danger.

How was I experiencing vicarious trauma?

I lived for years in a relationship in which passive aggressive behavior was a dominant reality. I call it ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ Nothing big or huge in any event, mostly small things, little words, neglect, withdrawal, turning away, lack of engagement.

A form of abuse.

For me, the actions of my government in dealing with asylum seekers are an underhanded intentional abuse of vulnerable people. It is persecution by policy. We are not physically beating asylum seekers detained in our on– and off–shore detention centres, nor are we subjecting them to persecution as it is commonly perceived and identified.

But the government’s continual tightening of the immigration policies, its determination to punish anyone who had the temerity to seek asylum by boat, its deterrence methods of detaining people in Nauru and Manus, are all forms of persecution of vulnerable and innocent people.

We are persecuting them by our policies.

Underhanded; sly; sleight-of-hand; passive-aggressive.

The trauma of not knowing when it will end, the trauma of not being able to fight or flee persecution because it’s not physical, the trauma of feeling a victim with no control, the sense of really being in the hands of others; this I identify with.

This is my vicarious trauma.

What do I do about this?

For myself the best I can do is recognize it, accept it and live with it.

For others, I can use my experiences, both from my marriage and from my work in off–shore detention, to raise awareness of trauma and abuse, both personal and political, to speak out and say this is what it is.

Our government cannot hide behind its ‘mandate’ for much longer. It may have had a mandate to ‘stop the boats’ but it cannot use that as an excuse for political persecution, for persecution by policy.

Abuse is abuse. Hidden or overt. Personal or political. It’s still abuse.

And it is wrong.