Chasing Asylum

Eva Orner

Australia 2016, 1h 30min

July 19th, 2013 marked the day on which Australia was recognised as one of the strictest countries for asylum seekers worldwide. From this date onwards, refugees travelling by boat were forbidden from seeking refuge on Australian soil. Refugees stopped in Australian waters were immediately placed in detention centres on the remote islands of Manus (Papua New Guinea) and the Republic of Nauru. The living conditions there were simply inhuman. They were packed into tents or iron sheet huts in suffocating temperatures without any hygienic care, insufficient and often squalid toilets, lack of clean drinking water, and depraved of privacy. In Nauru alone, some 2,000 refugees were locked up for an unknown period of time without any possibility of defence or hope of improved conditions.

No journalists or filmmakers were allowed to enter the detention centres. Cameras were forbidden. So, Academy Award-winner Eva Orner had to base her U.S.-Australian co-produced documentary Chasing Asylum on footage recorded in secrecy in the camps, filmed quickly and highly fragmented. The faces of the witnesses, refugees as well as employees in the camps, are often hidden for their own protection. They all speak of refugees’ rife self-harming, from self-inflicted lacerations to suicide attempts through poison and hanging.

The strategy used by Australia’s government to dissuade refugees from seeking asylum in their country was to create a horrific image of its detention conditions. Simultaneously, they tried to hide the barbaric conditions from their own media to avoid any form of interference or questioning. This strategy was a success and refugees arriving by boat to Australia ceased. However, according to the UNHCR, approximately 10,000 asylum seekers in boats remained stranded in the Indonesian’s town of Cisarua. Ignoring the accusations of neglecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human right treaties like the Convention relating to the status of refugees (1951), Australia invested 3 billion Australian Dollar a year towards the running of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Refugees were trapped, without any access to basic amenities, no schools for the children, and no protection from the harmful conditions, which resulted from being caged like animals. Threatened and intimidated to the point of signing false declarations about being culpable of violent acts, Orner persevered and spoke to a small number of refugees and detention centre employees who were ready to speak out and divulge even more atrocities. One of them is Dr. Peter Young, Director of Mental Health Services at the detention centres. Their testimonies refer to children self-harming (such as hitting their head against stones) or the psychological consequences of missing a soft toy or privacy. Sexual behaviour of children below the age of 5 was also observed; a clear reaction to witnessing adult scenes. Further testimonies featured people dying of blood poisoning due to a lack of basic medical care and hygiene. The shocking list of degrading inflictions culminate in the direct physical and sexual abuse of women and children, in addition to brutal, and frequently fatal, beatings of refugees perpetrated by guardians who, often had been soldiers in the countries the refugees had fled.

All these facts were finally made public in the Moss Report, published 17 months after the first abuse case was reported. The drastic conditions of refugees led to two violent camp riots in 2015. The first took place in Nauru and the second, seven months later, on Manus Island. The riot in Manus was provoked by stones and gunfire attacks from outside of the camp, against the refugees. The severity of damages caused in the Nauru camp alone was estimated at ten million Australian Dollar. In the ensuing trial, no conviction was made despite 60 asylum seekers being severely injured, one suffering a slit throat, one losing an eye whilst a third was killed.

After the shocking events were revealed, the Australian government unabashedly signed a new 40 million dollar deal with Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, to harbour Australia’s refugees. A further 15 million dollars was paid at a later date. Furthermore, Nauru and Manus camps have since opened and the refugees expected to integrate into, what is essentially, a hostile community. There are no real work opportunities, only poorly paid jobs. They are guarded by armed forces, this time for their own protection, but there have, nevertheless, been reports of sexual assaults and rapes against women outside of the camps. No one has ever been charged for these crimes.

In 2015, the UN found that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breached the International Convention against Torture. In April 2015, thousands of refugees, mainly of Vietnamese origin, were stranded off the coast of Thailand. This leads Omer to look back at the 1970’s when, under the responsibility of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, some 70,000 Vietnamese were resettled in Australia without provoking any fear or resistance. Their integration proved successful and encouraged productive co-operation in new, mixed communities. An experience which, in the words of Fraser, was “very productive and beneficial” for both sides.

When filming her documentary, Orner faced a number of serious challenges,  such as locating approved statistical information, official political declarations and political facts which could only be added aswritten information. There is very little historical archive material. The camps’ restrictive filming permits coupled with the necessity of security protection for her witnesses, who sometimes receive death threats, make her documentary a work of resistance. Her goal was to make an informed and useful documentary, something she has succeeded in. The below par quantity of the representing images, sensible audio-visual materials and captured individual viewpoints, specially concerning the victims, seem understandable. As expected, a long list of politicians declined to be interviewed for the film. These include Peter Dutton (Minister for Immigration), Scott Morrison (former Minister for Immigration), former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and the incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Orner’s film ends on this useful link: Taking action: chasingasylum.com.au


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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek, essayist, film and festival critic and director of the Festival international Signes de nuit.