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I Dare Australia's High Commissioner in London to Watch My Film 'Chasing Asylum'

Last night, a film that blows the whistle on Australia's inhumane asylum system was projected onto London's Australia House.
October 7, 2016, 12:00am

Scenes from 'Chasing Asylum' projected onto Australia House in London (All photos by Chris Bethell)

On the 1st of August, 2014, I arrived back in Australia after ten years living in the US. What brought me back was anger and frustration. Since 2001 I had watched in horror as Australia sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to the remote Islands of Nauru and Manus. I was horrified in 2001 when in reaction to a boatload of predominantly Afghan Hazaras arriving on our shores fleeing Taliban persecution, our then Prime Minister John Howard, defied the Refuge Convention of which we are a signatory, and denied them entry to Australia declaring, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

In 2007, when Australia's conservative government was defeated at election, I cheered in New York with friends as under Kevin Rudd's leadership the camps were closed. Several years later I reeled in horror when the same man reopened the camps declaring "from now on no asylum seeker arriving by boat will ever be resettled in Australia".


On Wednesday night we projected images from my film Chasing Asylum onto the exterior of Australia House, the offices of Australia's High Commissioner, Alexander Downer. The images are of secret footage obtained for the film from inside Australia's notorious detention centres on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

For the past 15 years, the Australian government has convinced a majority of Australians that if we don't have some of the harshest border protection policies in the world, we will be invaded. This is simply not true and the price we pay is beyond comprehension.

Here are some basic facts. There are currently a little over 2,000 men, women and children stuck in indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru. Most have now been there, in limbo, for over 1,000 days. The conditions they live in are dreadful. Moldy tents, equatorial heat, no privacy, inadequate medical care, many people are on serious medication and have mental illness. There are many and serious allegations of child abuse, often by security staff, rape and five men have now died in the camps. One was the victim of an attack by locals and security guards, one from inadequate medical care – a cut foot that led to septicaemia, one from self-immolation. You get the picture. And here is the kicker. All of this costs the Australian taxpayer $1.2 billion (£720 million) a year. That's around $500,000 per asylum seeker, per year. Someone is making out like a bandit. The security companies that run the detention centres and the governments of Nauru and Papa New Guinea, who have been paid to take our refugees, are raking in a fortune.

Here's another fact for you. Australia is the only country in the world to place children in indefinite detention.

The option for the refugees on Manus and Nauru are the following. They can resettle where they are. They are not welcome by the locals, there is no employment and there are no prospects for them. Resettlement to date has been a complete failure. Resettled refugees on Nauru require 24-hour security to protect them from locals, paid for by the Australian government. Refugee women are threatened and many have reported being raped. Some have been brought to Australia for abortions. Men and children are regularly harassed and beaten. Resettlement on Papua New Guinea has the same issues.


The other option for them is to go back to where they cam from, often to persecution, danger or death. Most of these people come from Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia or Sri Lanka, but our government will happily pay them, usually a sum of $10,000 or more, to go home. We have sent men back to Syria.

What we are doing is wrong. What is being done is shrouded in such an aggressive policy of secrecy that the average Australian is clueless to what was being done in their name and with their dollar. For me this feels personal. Like 30 percent of the population, I am a first generation Australian. My parents where born in 1937, Poland. Jewish. Three of my grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust. My grandfathers were shot in mass killings by the Nazis and my maternal grandmother was gassed at Treblinka. What my family history has taught me is that we must speak out when something is wrong.

Eva Orner

Chasing Asylum was an impossible film to make. It is about places we are not allowed to go – no filmmakers, journalists, cameras, NGOS are allowed inside the camps. It is about people we are not allowed to speak to. And as of July 2015, when Australia's "Border Force Protection Act" was passed, it has become a criminal act for anyone working at the Manus or Nauru Detention Centers to speak out about conditions there. Such an act is punishable by two years in jail. In a democracy.

Our elected leaders tell us conditions aren't so bad inside the camps. Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister Dutton were at the UN a few weeks ago for global refugee talks. They touted our tough border protection laws as the best in the world and encouraged other countries to use us as an example. Minister Dutton suggested our camps are in line with camps in Jordan such as Zaartari.


The most simple and effective argument against their statements is this.

If it's all so great in the camps as they claim, why can't I, or journalists or NGOs, go there and talk to asylum seekers? Check the places out. Film and take photos. And why is it a criminal offence with jail time to speak out about what is happening there?

Chasing Asylum has just finished a four-month cinema run across Australia. It has been screened for schools and universities. Over the coming months it will screen across the globe. Tonight it premieres in London.

The Australian government has not responded to the film in a meaningful way. They have ignored all the attention the film garnered in Australia. What seems to bother the government more is international coverage. When Roger Cohen wrote a New York Times piece critical of Australia's offshore processing, Minister Dutton engaged in a Twitter exchange with the journalist essentially telling him to mind his own beeswax. Needless to say the Minister was quickly outwitted by Mr. Cohen. When the BBC interviewed me, they approached the Australian government for comment. "The film is inaccurate," they said. No examples. No specifics. The BBC fact-checked the film and couldn't find anything amiss. They left an open invitation to the Australian government.

While the film was screening in Australia, I invited Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister Dutton to view the film. I offered them tickets and a complimentary box of popcorn, to no response.

On Wednesday night we projected images of Nauru and Manus on the façade of Australia House. We have this footage because of the courageous whistleblowers in the film and beyond, who have risked everything to show the world what we are doing. We now know what is happening in our offshore detention centres. And for the first time we have proper footage of conditions there. The whistleblowers are the real heroes of this story. Not our weak, scare mongering politicians who hide their racism in calls for border security.

So I invite Mr. Downer, Australia's High Commissioner, to the screening tonight. Tickets, popcorn. Whatever you like. Come. Join me for a Q&A. As one of the architects of the so-called Pacific Solution and a staunch defender of Australia's refugee policies, I dare you.

Eva Orner is an Australian Academy- and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker.

Tickets to 'Chasing Asylum' at London Film Festival are available here.