Australia's hard-hitting policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore detention centres has been shrouded in secrecy. Film producer and director, Eva Orner has finally lifted the lid on this sinister practice. It is not a ‘feel good’ documentary, or one for the faint-hearted. Ori Golan spoke to her.
Odious, pernicious and sinister. These are the adjectives Eva Orner chooses to describe the Australian government’s treatment of the 2,175 ‘boat people’ who have washed up on Australia’s shores after 19 July 2013, the day the Australian government instigated the ‘PNG Solution.’ Ever since, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are routinely flown out of Australia, for off-shore processing, with a guarantee that they will never be allowed to settle in the country.
For its part, the Australian government – from both sides of the political divide – has defended these hard hitting measures as necessary to deter people smugglers from making the perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia by boat, and 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 on their way to Australia, is in the region of 1000. It is undeniable that this policy has been remarkably effective. The arrival of these boats into Australia has ground to zero.
Orner, doesn’t buy into it.
“We are the only country which puts children in indefinite detention,” she says. “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 centres, indefinitely. And it is being done in our name, by our government. I think we should be deeply ashamed.”
I meet Orner in Bondi beach, Australia’s most famous surfing beach, as the rain pummels the promenade and we run for cover. We arrive in her luxurious hotel suite overlooking the ocean. She pours tea into a mug, then settles into a chair and bites into a pear. As we chat, text messages in her iPhone ping intermittently, her iPad emits sounds to announce new emails and she holds her laptop to check some facts. She is clearly switched on.
Orner is in Sydney for the screening of her documentary, Chasing Asylum, which trains the spotlight on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres 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’s film lifts the lid for the first time on 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 centres. 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 either facilities is closely guarded. A visa application to fly to Nauru costs $8000 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. “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, your 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 spectre of prosecution has silenced most witnesses and the 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; of men, women and children locked up in confined spaces with little privacy. It depicts life in limbo, characterised by uncertainty, fear, frustration and vulnerability. 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 his bed, in despair. Chasing Asylum is a study in the crashing of the human spirit.
A former safety and security officer on Manus Island tells how asylum seekers are accommodated in a former World War II hut made of tin, with a concrete floor, holding 122 double bunks. “Manus Island is tropical and these guys were housed in a tin shed. It was disgusting. The odour 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. 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.”
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 often manifested in the daily, almost routine, aspects of life in these centres such as 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.
The most appalling of testimonies in this documentary is given by a young support worker who was employed in Manus Island and whose face is outside the camera frame. She relates the disastrous effects which indefinite detention has had young children, describing in chilling details incidents of sexual abuse and sexualised behaviours among children as young as 5. Children, she says, refer to themselves by their boats ID numbers and not by their name. “It’s like they’ve forgotten their own names”, she summarises, audibly upset. She goes on to describe a terrifying scene she witnessed when an asylum seeker was severely bashed by security guards, sustaining serious injuries. Later, when she made a deposition for the Nauruan police investigating the incident, she was pressurised to change her witness account and report that the guards only pushed him.
When claims of self-harm and sexual abuse became public, the Australian government acted swiftly. All the staff of Save the Children on Nauru were sacked and deported, charged with fabricating stories and ‘coaching and facilitating’ the people in the detention centre to self-harm. [In May this year, the government reached an out-of-court settlement with the organisation 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 1 is the same as day 601. Many of the people on Manus Island and Nauru have been there for over 1000 days.”
“The Australian government”, explains Orner, “is trying to make it worse for asylum seekers in these detention centres 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. “Their situation is pretty dire. They cannot get travel documents and they are essentially trapped.”
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 centres 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.”
In July last year Orner found herself in chambers with criminal QCs who were assessing whether she or the whistle blowers in the film, could go to prison for telling the truth about government policies.
How has making this documentary affected her, I ask. Her reply is somewhat oblique and yet also candid: “This is not a job where you come home, switch off and watch television. 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.” Recounting this, clearly moves her.
Orner is no stranger to explosive or divisive subject matters. At 46, she already has five films to her name. In 2007 she produced Taxi to the Dark Side which won the Academy Award for best documentary Feature that year. The film investigates the killing an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was horrifically tortured to death by American soldiers in Bagram base in Afghanistan.
So is this another in a series of controversial documentaries? She shakes her head. “No, this one is deeply personal for me. My parents were born in 1937 in 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. It tells a story and paints a reality which has been painstakingly put together through interviews, smuggled footage and erudite analysis. It is a story that is still in the making. In her quest to expose the plight of asylum seekers who have turned to Australia for protection, Orner travelled to Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Lebanon, Cambodia and Indonesia. “The only place I was not able to travel to is Nauru”, she smiles.
As we wrap up our interview, I ask her squarely: what is the solution? She barely waits for me to finish the question. “They will have to shut them [Nauru and Manus island detention centres] down. They cannot keep them going. It is a blight on our reputation. We are a laughing stock internationally. We have damaged these people irrevocably.”