ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 1, Spring 2011

Working behind the wire

Sarah Miller Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Sarah Miller

From leaky fishing boats to remote detention centres, the life of an asylum seeker is bleak. Margie Dimech spoke to clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Sarah Miller about working behind the wire.

Dr Sarah Miller has just returned from her second visit to Curtin Detention Centre in the Kimberley in a remote corner of Western Australia.

The centre was re-opened in June 2010 and now holds the most asylum seekers in the country - more than 1,400 men from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who have had their refugee applications suspended.

A clinical and forensic psychologist, Dr Miller visits the centre to provided psychological assistance to detainees. She works with a team of doctors, general and psychiatric nurses and social worker staff, in what can only be described as challenging circumstances.

"While we're working at the centre we live in dongas, which resemble a converted shipping container," she said. "It's kind of like a prison cell and about the same size, which really makes you empathise with the detainees.

"We often have no power - which means no air conditioning, no phone reception, no landline connection and no road access. The shelves at the supermarket are often empty of staples like bread and milk."

Every day the team travels more than 55 kilometres to the centre, through a barren and lifeless landscape, in temperatures that soar well into the 40s in summer.

Dr Miller's work at the centre is carried out through International SOS - an international healthcare, medical assistance, and security services company.

"The range of distress and psychological damage is extreme, both due to pre-detention torture and post-detention reactive depression," she said.

"However the people at Curtain detention centre are so kind-natured and receptive to psychological assistance, and just grateful for the opportunity to be heard and have their pain validated.

"Many claim to have travelled for weeks on leaky unseaworthy boats with all the promises of a better life by people smugglers.

"They flee their country due to the threat of death and killings by the Taliban in their home towns, but sadly many make the journey only to be denied refugee status and sent home."

The 36-year-old, who completed a Doctor of Clinical Psychology at ACU's Melbourne Campus, has had her fair share of experience helping people through trauma and loss.

In 2010 she was chosen as one of the few Australian psychologists on the Red Cross delegation list for deployment to natural disaster or conflict zones. Later that year she joined the emergency response team in Pakistan, after the worst floods in the country's history.

"People who had been affected by the floods were often suffering from more than just physical wounds and loss of property and possessions," Dr Miller said. "It was my role to provide psychological first aid and counselling to help people come to terms with their loss and prevent future more permanent traumatic effects."

Before leaving Pakistan, Dr Miller and her teammates trained up a group of local medical professionals to continue their work.

"While my work in Pakistan and now at Curtin has been a challenge, I am really enjoying working with these people who have been through so much, and hopefully making some difference to their lives."

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