On World Refugee Day (June 20 2016), my husband and I went along to see the documentary Chasing Asylum at our local cinema. The film shows the mental, physical and fiscal impact of Australia’s offshore detention policies through footage from inside the detention camps and powerful interviews with staff and asylum seekers.
The plight of refugees and Australia’s treatment of them, has become an issue that I’ve been avidly researching behind the scenes with increasing interest and passion. I therefore found the film to be unsurprisingly shocking and harrowing.
I walked away wanting to know more. Wanting to do more. I immediately soaked up film maker Eva Orner’s book of the same name, Chasing Asylum, and ordered a range of other books on human rights, off shore detention centres, and refugees. I then found myself applying for, and being accepted into, a Master of Human Rights. I want to learn more, in order to be a more informed voice and of more use in this area.
Lessons from Chasing Asylum
The Howard government opened offshore detention centres in Nauru (a remote Pacific Island) and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) in 2001 to hold asylum seekers who had attempt to enter Australia by boat. From this date forward, governments on both sides of politics have maintained the detention centres, despite ninety per cent of detainees being confirmed to be legitimate refugees. ‘Stop the boats’ has become a well-known political slogan in Australia, as well as the promise that no person who comes by boat will ever be settled in the country.
Despite no cameras or journalists being allowed in the facilities, we have regularly heard of incidents within the wire fences – murders, suicides, riots, rapes, and severe health problems and emergencies. Chasing Asylum shows us a glimpse, generally through shaky secret iPhone footage of the conditions within the camps, confirming much of which we had only ever previously been told. In addition to this, the documentary presents haunting statistics (valid at the time of filming, some of which are captured below), painting an overall harrowing picture of how we treat fellow human beings, including children and those escaping persecution.
Below is a summary of some of the takeaways that stuck with me following the documentary screening and my reading of Eva Orner’s book afterward. I’ve also included a couple of YouTube clips from the film.
- The 1951 Refugee Convention was born as a result of World War II, when countries including Australia didn’t allow persecuted Jews to enter the country, where they were then killed in Europe’s gas chambers. The Convention was an agreement created to protect people from similar fates – of which Australia signed. Despite this, Australia has long been in breach of the Convention and multiple international laws.
- Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are NOT illegal. Under international law, it is a human right to seek asylum from persecution or other serious human rights abuses. It is NOT a crime to seek asylum or to arrive by boat. Those (including politicians) claiming that arriving by boat is illegal are wrong.
- In comparison to other countries, Australia accepts a small number of asylum seekers – ranking 67th in the world for refugee intake per capita – despite being one of the richest, most prosperous and resourceful countries in the world. We accept around 13,750 refugees annually.
- Many of the asylum seekers held at Manus and Nauru have been in detention for years, knowing that even if they are reported as genuine refugees, they will not ever be allowed to settle in Australia. They remain incarcerated not knowing if they will ever be released.
- Australia spends $1.2 billion per year running the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, with an average cost of $500,000 per asylum seeker per year.
- In exchange for $55 million, Australia made a deal with Cambodia to resettle refuges from Nauru and Manus Island. This resulted in just 5 refugees taking the deal.
- Current and former staff (e.g., social workers, volunteers, security guards, managers) share their stories and experiences working within the camps, some whose identities are hidden throughout Chasing Asylum. Former Salvation Army worker, Nicole Judge, tells us about how she was told to learn how to use a Hoffman knife to cut ropes after suicides by hanging. A social worker reports on the daily self harm by those detained within – having witnessed detainees who had stitched their lips and eyelids shut, burnt themselves, cut themselves, and more. She also talks about the appalling conditions of the camps, as footage is shown of graffiti like “kill us” and faeces stained facilities. A previous manager talks about harsh conditions being deliberate in order to deter further boats from coming to our shores. A former safety and security officer, Martin, shares that he quit his job after receiving death threats for speaking up about what he had witnessed.
- Chasing Asylum also tells us the stories of Reza Barati and Hamid Khazaei. Barati was killed during the riots on Manus and Khazaei died of an infection in his foot. A witness to the murder of Barati speaks out, and the parents of both men share why their sons left for Australia and how they hear of their deaths.
- Whistleblowers face up to two years in prison for divulging information from within the detention centres – including the report of child sex abuse.
- All politicians invited to be interviewed for Chasing Asylum declined, with only Malcolm Fraser accepting not long before he passed away. In the 1970s and 80s, Fraser resettled a large intake of Vietnamese people in Australia saying “it (resettlement in Australia) was the right thing to do, especially considering we had been involved in the conflict.” The documentary is dedicated to Fraser and ends with a photo of Vietnamese people holding tribute to him following his death with a sign thanking him for being their saviour.
What can you do?
- Check out the Chasing Asylum website to see where you can find a screening and watch the film. Alternatively, you can buy a copy of Eva Orner’s book Chasing Asylum which goes more into the story behind making the film. OR you could even consider hosting your own Chasing Asylum screening.
- Commit to learning more about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, and informing yourself on the myths and facts around the issue. This resource from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) is a great summary document of myths and facts that you might like to read. This page on the Chasing Asylum website also responds to some frequently asked questions around the issue.
- Read this page on the Chasing Asylum website where you can learn a number of ways that you can take action, ranging from signing petitions and pledges, writing to MPs, and donating or volunteering to assist refugees.
Let’s dream for others,
Notes: 1) These statistics were correct at the time of Eva Orner filming and writing Chasing Asylum. 2) If you use any links in this article to purchase Chasing Asylum, I may receive a small commission from Booktopia.