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.
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