Australian Border Force is investigating the extent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in its workforce caused by having to retrieve the bodies of asylum seekers killed trying to reach Australia by boat.
Speaking before a Senate estimates hearing at Federal Parliament on Monday morning, Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg revealed there was “significant anecdotal evidence” of trauma to frontline personnel.
“Not just those that were pulling bodies out of the water, but those that were actually dealing with the trauma of the interceptions, the capsizes, several of our officers went overboard, were at significant risk of harm and indeed death to themselves, and certainly dealing with the stress and trauma of the [illegal maritime arrivals] on board those vessels,” Mr Quaedvlieg said.
Mr Quaedvlieg said he asked the Border Force chief medical officer to have a “much closer look” at the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder within that group of Border Force personnel.
“It’s something I’m exceptionally concerned about, because PTSD is something that can lie dormant for significant periods of time and something that I suspect will have a long-lasting impact on our staff,” he said.
In December 2014, the ABC interviewed several serving and former Australian Defence Force members who served on border protection operations off Australia’s northern coastline.
They described being deeply traumatised by the task of retrieving the bodies of dead asylum seekers whose boats had sunk before Australian Navy ships could reach them.
Defence says border staff ‘dealing well’ with pressures
Former sailor Troy Norris had recently been discharged from the Navy suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He spent 13 years intercepting and boarding asylum seeker vessels, rising to the rank of chief bosun’s mate.
“There’d been times where we had to do body recoveries, which was quite difficult and traumatising,” Mr Norris said at the time.
“It was extremely difficult, especially if the people had been in the water for quite a period of time … they become quite bloated and there’s only one way to pull them in and that’s to grab them and try and chuck them in the boat.
“Sometimes you’d go to pull these people in the boat and all you’d end up with is a handful of flesh. It’d just strip to the bone.”
When the ABC asked Defence to discuss the claims, it responded by saying that the majority of personnel deployed on border protection operations were “dealing well” with the pressures, and that the reported rates of mental health symptoms were “low”.
The sailors interviewed by the ABC also claimed they were treated poorly by Defence after being diagnosed with PTSD, and that the secrecy surrounding border protection operations exacerbated that.
“Recently it was mental health awareness week. [Commanding officers] of bases and senior officers all got up and said, ‘Oh, you know, don’t forget to ask people are you OK?’ as the slogan goes,” one sailor — who could not be identified — said at the time.
“Well, the problem with the Navy is when people say ‘no’, they don’t know what to do. And that’s not good enough,” he said.
“I didn’t realise I had a problem until things got way out of hand, and it’s only a matter of time before those people who are not getting the support — God forbid — went to the extreme of committing suicide because they felt there was nowhere to go.”
In response, Defence said there was a “range of avenues” open to servicemen and woman suffering from psychological problems, but that the stigma of mental health problems meant they sometimes did not seek help.
This piece was originally seen on ‘ABC News’ February 27, 2017.