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"Stay away, otherwise we treat you like animals"

Chasing Asylum.
Regissør: Eva Orner 

Chasing Asylum provides a timely critical look at Australia's cruel refugee policy.



The 19. July 2013 Australia became known as one of the world's worst countries for asylum seekers. From that day, boat refugees were denied access to Australian soil. Refugees halted in Australian waters were spotted in detention camps in the remote islands of Manus (Papua New Guinea) and the Republic of Nauru.

The living conditions there were simply inhumane. The refugees were packed together in tents or shelters in stifling temperatures without hygienic measures, with inadequate and often miserable toilets, lack of drinking water and no possibility of privacy. In Nauru alone, 20 refugees were locked in indefinitely, with no prospect of defense or hope for better conditions.

No journalists or filmmakers were allowed to enter the detention camps. Cameras were prohibited. That's why Oscar winner Eva Orner had to base the documentary Chasing Asylum - an American-Australian co-production – secretly filmed in camps, instantly filmed and highly fragmented. The faces of the witnesses, refugees as well as the camp staff are often hidden – to protect them. Everyone talks about widespread self-harm among the refugees – everything from cuts to suicide attempts by poisoning or hanging.

Ignored the world community. The strategy used by the Australian government to prevent refugees from seeking refuge in Australia was to create a frightening picture of the detention conditions. At the same time, they were trying to hide the barbaric conditions of the country's own media, so as not to risk any interference or questions. This strategy was a success and the flow of boat refugees to Australia stopped. However, about 10 asylum seekers stranded in the Indonesian city of Cisarua, according to UNHCR.

Australia ignored allegations of breaches of the International Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, and invested 12 billion Australian dollars annually to operate the Manus and Nauru internment camps. The refugees were trapped, with no access to basic amenities, no schooling for the children, and no protection from the harmful conditions that resulted from being caged inside as animals.

Orner was threatened and accused of signing false allegations of wrongdoing, but she persevered and spoke to a small number of refugees and staff who were willing to reveal even more atrocities. One of them is Dr Peter Young, who is the head of the mental health service in the internment camps.

Their testimonies are about children who self-injure by banging their heads against a rock, and about the psychological consequences of missing a teddy bear or private life. Sexualized behavior was observed in children under five years also implies that they have witnessed sexual acts. Other testimonies include people who died of blood poisoning due to lack of medical treatment and hygiene. The shocking list of degrading penalties is at odds with the direct physical and sexual abuse of women and children, as well as the brutal and often lethal stabbing of prisoners who were executed by guardians who were usually soldiers in the refugee countries.

Everyone talks about widespread self-harm among the refugees – everything from cuts to suicide attempts by poisoning or hanging.

Violation of the torture convention. All of these facts were finally published in the Moss Report, which came 17 months after the first case of abuse was reported. The precarious conditions for the refugees led to two violent riots in 2015, the first in Nauru and the second seven months later on Manus Island. The revolt in Manus was caused by attacks with stones and firearms from the outside towards the refugees. The extent of damage in the Nauru camp alone was estimated to be ten million Australian dollars. The lawsuit that followed ended without convictions, despite the fact that 60 asylum seekers were severely injured – one had the throat cut, another had lost an eye, and one person was killed.

After the shocking events were revealed, the Australian government signed a new $ 40 million class agreement with Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, to house Australia's refugees. An additional $ 15 million was paid later.

The camps at Mauru and Manus have also been opened, and the refugees are expected to be integrated into what is essentially a hostile society. There are no real job opportunities, just lousy paid work. They are protected by armed forces, this time for their own protection, but sexual abuse and rape of women outside the camps have been reported. No one has ever been charged with these crimes. In 2015, the UN found that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers was in breach of the International Convention against Torture.

Tenth politician. In April 2015, thousands of refugees, mostly Vietnamese, stranded off the coast of Thailand. That made Orner look back to the 1970s, when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister of Australia. Then 70 Vietnamese settled in Australia – without fear or resistance. Their integration was a success, stimulating productive collaboration in new, mixed societies. It was an experience that, in Fraser's words, was "very productive and useful" for both parties.

Orner faced a multitude of challenges as she made Chasing Asylum. She had to find approved statistical material, official political statements and political facts she could only add as written information. There is very little historical archival material. Strong restrictions were placed on the possibility of admission to the camps, and the witnesses, who were sometimes killed, had to be protected. All of this made her documentary a kind of resistance.

In 2015, the UN found that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers was in breach of the International Convention against Torture.

Her goal was to make an informed and useful documentary, and she has certainly succeeded. The modest scope of representative imagery, appropriate audiovisual material and individual viewpoints, especially among the witnesses, seems understandable.

As expected, there is a long list of Australian politicians who refused to be interviewed for the film. This is true of other immigration minister Peter Dutton, former immigration minister Scott Morrison, former prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott – and current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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