Asylum-seeker deaths take emotional toll on navy staff

Dealing with asylum-seekers’ deaths at sea is taking an emotional toll on navy members, Australia’s border protection commander has said, amid concerns that deaths will continue because of the steady stream of boats.

Admiral David Johnston, the head of Border Protection Command, said a ”dreadful feeling in the stomach” accompanied any alert of a boat in trouble. He was speaking in the wake of the deaths of four asylum seekers after a boat capsized in rough seas north of Christmas Island on Tuesday night.

”Dealing with deaths is particularly difficult – physically difficult in terms of the environment in which they’re working, and emotionally very difficult for all of us,” Admiral Johnston said.

”It is a dreadful feeling in the stomach when we hear that a vessel has capsized or that it’s in some difficulty and then we are responding to try to ensure we are bringing as many people as we can to safety.”

Figures released last year by the Defence Department showed that 7.7 per cent of sailors posted on border protection duties reported post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms – about the same as that for military personnel on other deployments including Afghanistan.

The navy introduced a program of mental health support in July 2011 especially for navy sailors deployed to Operation Resolute – the border protection operation – citing the ”unique stressors” associated with the work.

Admiral Johnston paid tribute to the ”extraordinary work” of the navy personnel involved in the rescue of the other 144 passengers aboard the asylum-seeker boat.

”It happened very quickly … the way they sequenced it to make sure they were recovering people, particularly out of the water, as quickly as they could in rough weather conditions,” he said.

”My praise for them is unlimited because of what they have achieved.”

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James said the relentlessness of the flow of boats had an effect on navy members’ morale – and meant that problems would continue.

”There are more boats out there to intercept, more things happening, and so therefore there’s going to be a greater emotional impact,” he said.

”It’s a reasonably relentless grind. They are out there every day and the boats keep coming.”

The navy was attentive to the fact that traumatic experiences such as dealing with deaths at sea could create post-traumatic stress disorder, he added.

On top of this, the political controversies meant extra ”wear and tear” on sailors’ emotions.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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