Why Australia’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island are still open
Oscar-winning filmmaker Eva Orner on documenting life inside Nauru and Manus and the effects of Australia’s harsh immigration detention policies.
I’ve been making films for more than 20 years and this is the hardest film I have ever made. If I’d known how hard this would be, I likely wouldn’t have done it.
Chasing Asylum is a film about places you are not allowed to go to and people you are not allowed to talk to – and halfway through the making of the film, it became a criminal act with a prison sentence of up to two years for people working with asylum seekers to speak out about what was happening.
One year ago, on August 17, 2016, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia announced they would close the Manus Island offshore detention centre, after PNG’s Supreme Court had ruled the centre was illegal and in breach of fundamental human rights.
The government has taken extreme measures to maintain secrecy about what goes on inside these offshore hellholes.
Today, the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru remain open and approximately 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers have now been held there for almost four years.
In June 2017, the Australian government agreed to what could be the largest human rights payout in the country’s history.
A class action in the Supreme Court of Victoria on behalf of 1,905 asylum seekers and refugees held at the Manus Island detention centre from November 2012 to December 2014 was resolved on the eve of the hearing, for a reported 70 million Australian dollars ($53m).
This payment (on average nearly 37,000 Australian dollars for each detainee, though the amounts paid to each individual will differ) is to compensate the detainees for physical and mental injury caused to them by the government’s failure to provide clean and safe water and food, shelter that would protect them from heat, rain and insects, essential personal items such as clothing, shoes and toiletries, adequate and hygienic medical and dental facilities, hygienic bathing and toilet facilities and protection from violence and assault.
The settlement shows the government accepts culpability for damage done to refugees held on Manus.
Images from inside
I returned home to Australia from the United States – where I’ve been based since 2004 – in August 2014, to start production on Chasing Asylum.
Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies are some of the toughest in the world and are specifically designed to deter people from coming to the country by boat. Chasing Asylum exposes the effects of these detention policies through the personal accounts of asylum seekers and whistle-blowers who worked in the system.
Chasing Asylum is a film about places you are not allowed to go to and people you are not allowed to talk to.
Like 30 percent of Australians, I am first generation. My Jewish parents were born in 1937 in Poland. Three of my grandparents perished in the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother Eva, after who I am named, was gassed at Treblinka before her 30th birthday. It is somewhat miraculous that my parents survived.
My parents were fortunate to be allowed to come to Australia in the 1950s as immigrants and, as a result, I have had a wonderful life here, receiving a great education and living free from persecution.
My family history has informed a lot of my work. I felt the need to expose the actions of the Australian government in Manus and Nauru to Australians and the rest of the world.
Under the offshore detention policy, people trying to reach Australia by boat are locked up indefinitely in remote detention centres. There is a strict secrecy policy: no journalists, filmmakers or cameras are allowed in the camps.
Despite some excellent print journalism detailing life in the camps, I felt the Australian public and the world needed to see images from inside. We needed to bear witness.
We managed to secretly film inside the Australian government’s detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru in a way no one had previously. I am often asked about the whistle-blowers who appear in the film. Some of them have their identities masked.
READ MORE: Australia to pay $53m to Manus Island asylum seekers
When whistle-blowing became a criminal act
In July 2015, while we were still filming, the Australian Border Force Act came into effect.
Hidden away in the Act is legislation which states that any government employee or anyone employed by an agency working on Manus or Nauru risks going to prison for up to two years if they disclose anything to the public about what they have seen there.
It means that if a social worker on Nauru discusses the abuses that have occurred there, he or she runs the risk of going to prison.
Because of the risk posed by this legislation, I am very limited in what I can say about the whistle-blowers who spoke to me. What I can say is that they are heroes and their acts of bravery should be recognised. I couldn’t have made the film without them.
On August 14, 2017, facing another High Court challenge, the Australian government announced it will amend the whistle-blower legislation in the Border Force Act, so it will no longer be a criminal act with up to two years jail time for people who speak out about what is happening in offshore detention centres.
The legislation is said to be retrospective, but until the legislation is passed, our lawyers advise us to remain silent about the identities of our anonymous whistle-blowers.
Despite the film screening theatrically across Australia for four months to large audiences and winning best feature documentary at the ACCTA Awards (Australia’s Academy Awards) no Australian broadcaster has screened the film on national television.
We know from Chasing Asylum about the murders, the deaths caused by inadequate medical attention, the rapes, the beatings, the suicides, the illnesses, and the record levels of self-harm that hang thickly in the air, dominating these places.
But the court case that was due to start this past June was to be something different.
For the first time, an Australian court had lifted the secrecy provisions of the Border Force Act. This allowed witnesses to come forward – including guards, doctors and welfare workers – and tell the truth. More than 70 whistle-blowers were expected to testify. They could do so without the threat of imprisonment faced by the people who were featured in the film.
The hearing, scheduled to run for six months, would have been a full-blown legal inquiry into Manus and the failures of the government’s detention policies, with painful stories being told not by politicians or refugee activists but by professionals and reported daily in Australian newspapers and on Australian television screens.
The Australian government is in the process of closing Manus and transporting the refugees to a transit centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
But refugees are refusing to leave: they haven’t been offered resettlement in other countries and claim they are unsafe in PNG.
In late July, three men were attacked – two of them with machetes – in separate robberies over the course of one weekend.
In October 2016, the outgoing Obama administration brokered a deal with the Australian government through which many of the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru with refugee status would be resettled in the US. But the election of a Trump administration stalled the agreement.
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security have interviewed refugees on Manus Island and Nauru but to date, none have been resettled.
I believe the centres on Manus and Nauru must be shut down and anyone who has been found to be a refugee (believed to be about 80 percent of detainees) but is not accepted into the US under the resettlement deal must be given the chance to settle, in safety at last, in Australia. And I believe this must happen quickly.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.