SYDNEY — Odious, pernicious, sinister. These are the adjectives which Melbourne native Eva Orner chooses to describe the Australian government’s treatment of the 2,175 “boat people.”
For years Australia’s harsh policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore detention centers has been shrouded in secrecy, but now film producer and director Orner has exposed this practice in a documentary that is not for the faint of heart.
“Chasing Asylum” is essential viewing and explores the fate of the refugees who have washed up on Australia’s shores since July 19, 2013, the day the Australian government instigated the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, also known as the PNG solution.
In the days and years following the implementing of the PNG solution, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are routinely flown out of Australia for off-shore processing, with a declared guarantee that they will never be allowed to settle in the country.
For its part, the Australian government has defended these hard hitting measures as necessary to deter human smugglers overseas from sending people on the perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia by boat, putting the lives of so many at risk.
While no official records are kept by any government agency, the estimated number of deaths at sea of asylum seekers making their way to Australia lies in the region of 1,000. It is undeniable that this deterrence policy has proven remarkably effective. The number of these boats arriving in Australia has sunk to zero.
Orner doesn’t buy into it. The human cost, she insists, does not justify the means.
“We are the only country which puts children in indefinite detention,” says Orner. “I want people to know that right now there is child abuse, rape, harassment and inhumane treatment of people who have fled for their lives and are languishing in detention centers, indefinitely. And it is being done in our name, by our government. I think we should be deeply ashamed.”
Orner meets The Times of Israel at Bondi Beach, Australia’s iconic surfing beach. The rain pummeling the promenade causes a mad dash for cover. Taking refuge at her luxurious hotel suite overlooking the ocean, she pours tea into a mug, then settles into a chair and bites into a pear. As she chats about the film, text messages in her iPhone ping intermittently, her iPad signals the arrival of new emails and she holds her laptop to check some facts. She is clearly switched on.
The Jewish filmmaker is in Sydney for the screening of “Chasing Asylum,” which shines the spotlight on asylum seekers in offshore detention centers on two remote islands in the Pacific Ocean: Manus Island, belonging to Papua New Guinea, and the Republic of Nauru, a tiny island country in Micronesia.
“I was expecting someone else to make a documentary on this subject,” she recalls, “but I soon discovered why it had not been done. It is an impossible film to make and story to tell. It is about places you are not allowed to visit, people you are not allowed to speak to, things you are not allowed to know.”
And therein lies the singularity of the film. Despite the strict limitations and many prohibitions imposed by the Australian government, Orner exposes for the first time the living conditions of those people who, fleeing war or persecution in their homeland, were placed out of sight of the Australian public, with the hope they would also remain out of mind.
Successive Australian governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to block access to information relating to its offshore detention centers. Facts, figures, names and stories of refugees, all remain behind a cloak of secrecy. Filming them is strictly prohibited and government officials remain tight-lipped about policies inside these off-shore immigration detention facilities. Access into both facilities is closely guarded. A visa application to fly to Nauru costs $8,000 AUS, making it the world’s most expensive visa.
But it gets worse.
Last year the Australian government passed the Australian Border Force Act, which makes it a criminal offense to speak out about conditions in offshore detention camps.
‘The law prohibits doctors, social workers, and aid workers reporting on abuse, rape, and violence’
“This law is particularly odious”, Orner stabs her index finger on the coffee table. “If you’re a government employee — which everyone there is — and you speak out about things that go on in the camp, you risk a two-year prison sentence. The gagging law prohibits contractors such as doctors, social workers and aid workers reporting on abuse, rape or violence.”
The specter of prosecution has silenced most witnesses and a climate of fear has prevented most of the hundreds of service providers working on Manus Island and Nauru from coming forward and sharing their experiences.
Despite all this, Orner managed to obtain secretly filmed footage from inside both Nauru and Manos Island detention camps. The result is a chronicle of untold suffering; men, women and children locked up in confined spaces with little privacy. It depicts life in limbo, characterized by uncertainty, fear, frustration and vulnerability.
As the clandestine phone-camera pans across security fences, gravel walkways, walls, doors, tents flaps, rows of bunk beds, filthy toilets and run-down facilities, the frame suddenly captures an inmate curled up on a bed, in despair. “Chasing Asylum” is a study in the crushing of the human spirit.
“Manus Island is tropical and these guys were housed in a tin shed,” says a former safety and security officer on Manus Island. “It was disgusting. The odor was disgusting. I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at.”
An interview with a former social worker working in the Nauru detention camp, paints the grimmest of pictures.
“There was malaria,” she says. “There was sickness, disease, infection. I was seeing daily harm, up to four a day. I saw men cut their stomachs open with glass; a young man stitched his lips with needle and thread; one man took a florescent light tube and beat himself with it across his head. There were men swallowing washing powder, swallowing razor blades. People tried to hang themselves with ropes, fan chords, knitting wool.
“The deterioration among all asylum seekers, regardless of age, is what’s hardest to see. People there have very real mental issues which they did not have before. Some are talking to themselves; others have psychotic episodes. Many are on anti-depressants and still have suicidal intentions,” says the social worker.
From January to August 2015, there were 74 reported incidents of self-harm on Nauru and 34 on Manus Island. Exploitation is rife and is simply part of daily life in these centers. An eye witness recalls an incident involving a guard who demanded to see a female detainee naked in return for allowing her an extra two minutes in the shower with her young child. Sexual favors are bartered in exchange for cigarettes.
The most shocking of testimonies in this documentary is given by a young support worker who was employed in Manus Island. Her face is hidden outside the camera frame. She relates the disastrous effects which indefinite detention has had on young children, describing in chilling details incidents of sexual abuse and sexualized behaviors among children as young as five.
Children, she says, refer to themselves by their boat ID numbers and not by their name.
“It’s like they’ve forgotten their own names,” she says.
She goes on to describe a terrifying scene she witnessed when an asylum seeker was brutally bashed by security guards, sustaining serious injuries. Later, signing a deposition for the Nauruan police investigating the incident, she was pressured to change her witness account and report that the guards only pushed him.
When claims of self-harm and sexual abuse became public in Australia, the government acted swiftly. All the staff of Save the Children on Nauru — an NGO dedicated to providing services to children there — were sacked and deported, charged with fabricating stories and “coaching and facilitating” the people in the detention center to inflict self-harm. (In May this year, the government reached an out-of-court settlement with the organization and admitted that the allegations were unsubstantiated.)
“These places are essentially prisons,” sums up Orner, “but unlike prisoners, they have not been handed a sentence and there is no indication when they’ll get out. They have committed no crime, but they are treated like criminals and have no end date. Day one is the same as day 601. Many of the people on Manus Island and Nauru have been there for over 1,000 days.”
“The Australian government,” explains Orner, “is trying to make it worse for asylum seekers in these detention centers than where they originally came from, so that they go back. Some do go home, often to persecution; some to prison.”
Indeed, the documentary follows Orner as she visits detainees who have gone back to their homelands having given up on the dream of Australia.
‘They have committed no crime, but they are treated like criminals’
“Their situation is pretty dire. They cannot get travel documents and they are essentially trapped,” she says.
When I ask her about the provenance of the footage from inside the camps, Orner obfuscates. She does, however, acknowledge the incredible bravery of former employees in these detention centers who agreed to go on record. As far as she’s concerned they are the true heroes.
“All of them suffer from post-traumatic stress, to some degree. Hopefully this film will embolden more people to speak out because when you look back in history, it’s the whistle blowers who change everything; they risk everything,” she says.
In July last year Orner found herself in chambers with criminal Queens Counsels assessing whether she or the whistle blowers in the film could go to prison for exposing government policies.
When asked about how she has been affected by making this documentary, her reply is somewhat oblique and yet also candid.
“This is not a job where you come home, switch off and watch television,” she says. “This sort of stuff is upsetting. You come close to things you can never forget.”
After a pause, she continues, “I met a young African refugee who had been raped on Nauru while suffering an epileptic fit. When she discovered she was pregnant she sought to have an abortion but in Papua New Guinea abortions are illegal. She begged authorities to let her come to Australia to terminate the pregnancy, but the government refused to allow her into Australia. She ended up having the baby.”
After her response Orner sits quietly, subdued. Clearly, this is not just a day job.
Orner, who now lives in Los Angeles, is no stranger to explosive or divisive subject matter. At 46, she already has five films to her name. In 2007 she produced “Taxi to the Dark Side” which investigated the killing of an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was horrifically tortured to death by American soldiers in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. She won the Academy Award for best documentary feature that year.
But by her own admission, “Chasing Asylum” goes to, and comes from, a different place.
“No, this one is deeply personal for me,” she says. “My parents were born in 1937 Poland. Three of my grandparents died in the Holocaust. I am first generation Australian. My family were lucky enough to come to this country as immigrants. I had a very fortunate, happy upbringing in Melbourne and a solid Jewish education which informs and guides what I do. Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951 which afforded my family protection and the right to live here.”
“Chasing Asylum” is a sobering, chilling, harrowing documentary about the “lucky country.” It paints a reality painstakingly put together through interviews, smuggled footage and erudite analysis. In her quest to expose the plight of asylum seekers who have turned to Australia for protection, Orner traveled to Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Lebanon, Cambodia and Indonesia.
“The only place I was not able to travel to is Nauru,” she smiles.
‘The only place I was not able to travel to is Nauru’
The film does not really end. It is a story that is still in the making. No one knows how the plight of the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island will conclude; how their fate will pan out.
Two years ago, a secretly negotiated agreement between Australia and Cambodia set out the terms and conditions of the relocation of refugees from Nauru to Cambodia for a handsome exchange of $40 million in aid money. Only five residents from Nauru’s detention center took up the offer. All have since left, destination unknown.
As the interview concludes, The Times of Israel puts the question to her squarely: What is the solution? She barely gives time to finish the question.
“They will have to shut them [Nauru and Manus Island detention centers] down,” she says. “They cannot keep them going. It is a blight on our reputation. We are a laughing stock internationally. We have damaged these people irrevocably.”
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