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A New Documentary Takes Us Inside Australia’s Refugee Detainment Camps

This is what 'The Pacific Solution' looks like.

by Jake Kivanc
May 2 2016, 2:55pm

Inside a refugee detention center on Nauru Island. All photos courtesy of Eva Orner

Whether you look at the disastrous US election campaign, or the European Union's debate over how to handle the Syrian refugee crisis, it's obvious that the world is struggling with a deep-seated identity crisis, one that calls into question ideas of race, religion, and nationalism. And for the most part, Western countries haven't handled this very well.

Over the last few years, the Australian government has been leaning hard into an anti-refugee plan known as "the Pacific Solution." Created to stop the arrival of boats filled with asylum seekers from countries like Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Pacific Solution is a program that reads like something out of Donald Trump's playbook: deter refugees from trying to enter your country by capturing every single one and indefinitely locking them up in a detainment camp on a remote island. It's cruel, but as shown in the new documentary Chasing Asylum, it has worked with shocking effectiveness.

Through multimillion-dollar deals with Papua New Guinea, the Australian government established two detention centers on the islands of Nauru and Manus. Since 2013, hundreds of refugees have been kept in these camps, forced to live inside open-air tent barracks where conditions are so severe that self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent. Inside the camps are men, women, and children, many of whom have been there for months, sometimes even years, with no end in sight. The few reports that have gotten through the Australian government's iron grip on information show mass violence, sexual abuse, riots, and death—a lot of which has been at the hands of prison guards and local authorities.

In Chasing Asylum, Australian director Eva Orner breaks the veil of secrecy around the camps with a compilation of footage that was illegally recorded by whistleblowers and social workers inside the detention centers. VICE spoke with her in Toronto, before the film's premiere at Hot Docs, to hear more about what went into the film and the repercussions of blowing the whistle on an entire country.

VICE: Thanks for sitting down, Eva. How did the idea for this film come about?
Eva Orner: I left Australia three years after the rejection of refugees began [in 2001], which is when the Tampa Crisis happened. John Howard was going to lose the election, so he did something very politically shrewd and extreme: He stood up and said, "We are going to decide who comes to this country, and the nature in which they come." He broke the refugee convention, which was very shocking at that time.

But a lot of people supported it, because people were afraid of brown, Muslim people coming to our country and invading us. This started happening shortly before 9/11. That political mindset carried through to when the detention centers were set up in Papua New Guinea, and the treatment has just gotten increasingly more severe. They used to process people slowly before letting them into Australia. Now, no one gets processed. They're forced to languish indefinitely. At the minute, most people have been there for over one thousand days.

What inspired you to make this film?
I am a first-generation Australian, but my parents were born in 1937 in Poland [to a Jewish family]. Three out of four of my grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, so I grew up in the shadow of genocide in a very idyllic and lucky way. My parents immigrated to Australia in the 1950s, so I had all the benefits of that. I had a great, upper-middle-class upbringing. I went to private school, but because I had knowledge of all these things that have happened to my family, it really informed all the work I ended up doing—this film included.

Even as a journalist, I didn't understand the scope of this issue until I saw the film. What was it like getting access to these camps?
It was very hard, and I am very thankful for those who came forward, and those who had the courage to bring such detailed footage out. A lot of people don't know the details of what's going on, or are really confused about it. There's a lot of secrecy, and there's a massive propaganda campaign in place by the Australian government, so very few people know what is actually happening inside the detention camps. I can't go into detail of how we got in, but it was a very tense process.

Are you or the whistleblowers in danger of being arrested by the Australian government now that this film is out?
As you know, since this film was finished, new legislation came out that goes after whistleblowers. That means doctors and nurses, people who witness sexual abuse of children by guards and detainees. It allows the government to put anybody who speaks out in prison, and that's a scary thought, because it makes me seriously question whether Australia is actually a democracy at this point.

I'm so proud that we've done it, but [creating the film] definitely came at a cost. I obviously don't have a lot of respect for the decisions the Australian government has been making, but I want Australian people and politicians to come and see what their policies and their taxes are doing. Hopefully common sense will win out.

The focus of having these whistleblower characters in the film rather than just telling the stories of the refugees was an interesting choice. Why did you go that route?
The asylum seekers and refugees in the film tell a huge part—if not almost all of the story—and I wanted to tell all of that aspect, but I really feel like the whistleblowers are, as always in theses situations, the heroes. Most of them are pretty damaged. Almost all of the ones I spoke to [in the film] had suffered some form of PTSD from their time at the camps. They were completely ill-equipped and had no idea what they were getting into.

Filmmaker Eva Orner: "I want Australian people and politicians to come and see what their policies and their taxes are doing."

There have been news stories about these camps before, but we haven't had that inside look until now. What shocked you the most when you first saw footage from the inside?
Well, right after I saw the footage, I had to ask refugees who had gotten out if this was what it really was like, and they told me that's exactly what it was. I was shocked by the tents, the confinement, the lack of privacy, the footage of the conditions small children are living in... I'm horrified my tax money is going to that. I think we should all be deeply ashamed. With that said, here in Canada, [your government] was very similar to ours until recently. Trudeau is an anomaly—I'm a bit of a fan—in a world that's becoming more and more conservative.

Does that worry you—that the world is becoming more conservative with the Donald Trumps and the Ted Cruzes of the world?
That's why I do what I do. You fight back with words, with books, with films, or protesting. We're reaching a tipping point—certainly in Europe, with the millions of refugees coming into the EU. I think Angela Merkel will go down and be praised in centuries as an extraordinary woman, but right now, she's in a lot of trouble because of anti-refugee sentiment. Truly, I think the world changed after the Allies' invasion of Iraq. In one hundred years, I think people will look back on this as the fall of the Persian Empire.

We destabilized everything in the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan. It's a disaster, and it's completely our fault. Australia, Canada, America, France, Britain—we have all our hands all over it, and as a result, there are all these refugees. But we don't want to help them. We created an issue, but we feel it's not ours to clean up.

There's this moment in the film where former Australian PM Malcolm Fraser is interviewed by you and talks fondly about letting in seventy thousand Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War. Why did you include that?
After Fraser did that, our country changed. We now have this large, thriving community of Vietnamese Australians, and I defy any Aussie who doesn't eat pho once a week [laughs]. To me, that was such an amazing contribution to our country. Yet now, during this crisis, our refugee intake is at the lowest it's been in a decade. People say, "What are we going to do, let everyone in? We're going to be invaded."

And they know that's not the truth—if they close the camps and start accepting refugees, they know they could fix these issues, but they also know that the boats will come again. The thing is that we live in a different world—we have to step up. We need to take responsibility for the fact that we have their blood on our hands.

What do you think's driving that xenophobia in places like Australia?
It's pretty simple: They're brown, they're Muslim, and they're from countries that we consider undesirable. Since 9/11, it's been really played up, that brown people are terrorists. Say there was a war in Europe, and England was invaded, and a bunch of white people went to the coast, got on boats, and came to Australia. Do you really think we'd be sending them to Manus and Nauru? I think the bias is pretty clear here. It's a racial one.

I gently invite these politicians who enforce these policies to come see the film. The beautiful thing was that, when Malcolm Fraser died, there were large crowds of Vietnamese people at his funeral. They held signs thanking him. Thanking him for taking a chance. We need to take that chance.

For where to watch Chasing Asylum, check out its Facebook page.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

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