On the second anniversary of her migration to the Lucky Country, Di White is moved to tears by Chasing Asylum, an acclaimed new film about Australian refugee policy.
It’s been two years since I moved to Australia. I arrived on a plane on 4 June 2014. I remember the day well. I was moving between two jobs across two countries with nothing but a four-hour flight in between.
I arrived into Melbourne at midnight. It was on that four-hour flight that I stopped to engage with the fact I was moving overseas for the first time. The three weeks since I had been offered my new job had been frantic: leaving parties, house moving, teary goodbyes – but all done knowing that I would be back soon. Those four hours were the most thought I had given to the fact that when I landed I would be starting a life in Australia.
When I landed, I passed through border control in all of ten minutes. There were no queues, just a few sleepy kids dragging their novelty suitcases. I got a cab from the airport to the house I was subletting for two weeks in Collingwood. I arrived, dragged my suitcases upstairs and crawled into bed to get some sleep before my first day in a new job.
On my first day in Melbourne and first morning in the job, my colleague explained that I would need to call the Australian Tax Office for a tax number. After a short conversation I was told it would be in the mail within five working days. At lunch, I walked to the nearest bank and asked to open a bank account. The friendly lady behind the counter photocopied my passport and gave me a bank account number. “Is that it?”, I asked. She smiled warmly and said, “Welcome to Australia.”
On 13 December 2013, less than six months before my arrival, the Australian government issued a regulation stating that any person who arrives to Australia by boat cannot seek refugee status in Australia. Not then, not now, not ever. People who arrive by boat to seek asylum after this date are taken to an offshore detention centre to have their claim processed. If they are found to be a refugee by law, they are given the option to permanently settle in Papua New Guinea or Cambodia, remain in detention indefinitely or be sent back to the country they fled.
The policy applies only to people coming by boat. People who seek asylum having arrived by plane or who are processed through the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, are processed in Australia. Only those so desperate to have risked their lives to come by boat face off-shore processing and no prospect of resettlement in Australia. Put simply, the nature of the persecution you are fleeing and the danger you face if you return does not matter, just the mode of transport you use to get here.
There are two off-shore detention centres: one on Manus Island, an island of Papua New Guinea, and one on the Republic of Nauru, a small remote island in the Pacific Ocean. As of November 2015, there were 926 asylum seekers on Manus Island and 543 on Nauru – including 70 children.
Both centres are currently in a state of flux. Manus Island’s detention centre has recently been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, meaning these asylum seekers face another layer of uncertainty. Pending a new place for them to go, the PNG government has opened the gates of the centre and asylum seekers are free to go about the small island, which has a permanent population of around 50,000. Similarly, in Nauru where the permanent population is around 1,000, asylum seekers are now allowed to move freely around the island. Both situations are presenting problems, with upset locals mixing with traumatised and frustrated detainees.
Many of the asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru have been detained for years as they wait for their claims to be processed, with no certainty as to when they will be released. All they know is that even if they are found to be genuine refugees – people who are not able to return to their home country due to the immense and imminent danger they face – they will not be allowed to settle in Australia.
For those who seek asylum in other ways – be it through arriving by plane or the UNHRC, there are no guarantees either. Australia has an annual refugee quota of 13,750 people. Australia, one of the world’s richest, most prosperous countries, ranks at around 68th in the world in terms of its refugee quota. New Zealand is even worse, ranking at around 90th, with a quota of 800 people, a number that has remained stagnant since 1987. To say both countries could do more is an understatement.
To mark my two year anniversary in Australia, I went to see what has been touted as one of the best human rights documentaries of 2016, Chasing Asylum. Directed by Australian Eva Orner and soon to screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Chasing Asylum catalogues the horror that is Australia’s recent treatment of asylum seekers. It contains secretly filmed footage from inside both Manus and Nauru, as well as accounts from numerous past and present detention centre staff.
Chasing Asylum weaves together a narrative of cowardice and cruelty from both sides of politics to document the real cost of these policies: people wasting away in squalor, misery and uncertainty. Staff in their late teens and early twenties recruited with no expertise in working with refugees recount the horror of these centres: being taught how use knives to cut down hanging bodies; watching security guards drunk on power joke and laugh about what it would be like to shoot detainees; witnessing the euphoria of a child hold a toy for the first time in years; seeing feces and other filth in open at the camps; witnessing brutal assaults on detainees by security personnel and then being made to change their story when reporting the incident. The footage is all the more shocking knowing that any recording and reporting ofconditions in detention is punishable by up to two years imprisonment.
Australia’s asylum seeker policies have bi-partisan support from both the Labor and Liberal parties. Both parties frame the policy as humanitarian: that a strong deterrence policy is needed to stop people making the dangerous journey by boat to seek asylum in Australia. As if riding a small boat across the ocean with a real chance you could die weren’t deterrence enough.
As explored in Chasing Asylum, this policy of deterrence is essentially about making detention in Nauru and Manus as miserable as possible. Government ministers state that they want the people detained on Nauru and Manus to tell their family and friends back home that Australia is no place to come. Putting aside questions about the legality and morality of such a policy – which are by no means insignificant questions – it’s a policy the fails on logic, too. Why, if the policy is one of deterrence, are off-shore processing centres shrouded in secrecy? If the Australian Government wants asylum seekers to see and understand the hostile conditions they will face if they come by boat, why ban journalists, threaten whistleblowers with imprisonment and bully independent government bodies that threaten to speak out? Outwardly, it’s a policy of deterrence but in reality it’s nothing more than a policy of inhumanity.
In filming Chasing Asylum, Ora travelled to Indonesia to meet some of the thousands of people stuck in Indonesia following the 2013 changes. Many of these people travelled from countries like Iran and Afghanistan with plans to reach Australia by boat. Now, facing the reality that if they arrive by boat they will have no hope of settlement in Australia, they wait in limbo: not able to return to the country they have fled but stuck without jobs or a future in Indonesia. As they go about their lives, they see signs and videos made by the Australian government, reminding them that if they come by boat they “will not ever make Australia home”.
Over the two years I have been in Australia, I have both contributed and taken from this country. I have paid taxes and I have contributed my skills. I have frequented markets, cafes, exhibitions and sporting events. I have volunteered my spare time and worked in roles that I hope will improve the society we live in. I have picnicked in public parks, used infrastructure like trains and bike lanes, and received subsidised healthcare through Medicare. I have been both a contributor and a burden to Australian society, like any migrant. Like any refugee would be, if only they had the chance.
I sat through Chasing Asylum and I cried. I cried at the arbitrariness of a world that lets me walk in and set up a new life within 12 hours but will put other people – people who desperately need a safe home – into high-fenced detention camps. An Australia that classes me as the right kind of migrant for no reason other than the country in which I was born. I felt sick to think that the tax I pay directly funds the security guards who beat desperate people and the dirty deals with our Pacific neighbours. With an election less than a month away, I felt hopeless, knowing that both major political parties stand by this inhumane policy.
Across the world, countries are grappling with the consequences of wars and conflict in which they, like Australia, are complicit. There is no question that the mass displacement of people arising out of conflict and regional instability creates significant challenges for governments in maintaining their borders. But at the heart of that challenge is people. And Australia is better than a policy that simply makes that a challenge for another, braver and more compassionate government. As is often pointed out, Australia has proven this in recent decades: in its mass intakes of refugees after World War II and after the Vietnam War. It’s not a question of capacity; it’s simply a question of political will.
There is not a doubt in my mind, and the minds of many others, that Australia will look back on this time in horror. But I think that New Zealanders, too, will look back at this time with great shame. Knowing that we, as Australia’s closest friend and ally, sat back and let this happen. That while we were moving freely between the two countries, people were being transported between detention centres on remote Pacific islands. Our government, like governments around the world, has a role to play in highlighting these atrocities and standing against them.
I don’t know if I’ll still be here in two years’ time. Australia is a beautiful, fascinating and prosperous country to live in. It is a country with an ugly past, like all colonial countries, but at the moment it is a country with a very ugly present and future. Many people would like that change, not least of all the men, women and children sitting, waiting and hoping for some humanity.