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Documentary Confronts Controversial Australian Asylum Policy

  • Phil Mercer

FILE - Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea, March 21, 2014.

FILE - Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea, March 21, 2014.

A documentary highlighting Australia’s hardline policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore processing centers by Oscar-winning film-maker Eva Orner opens in Melbourne Thursday. Described by one reviewer as a “90-minute compendium of shame,” the film explores the frustration and tragedy of detainees held at Australian-run camps.

Chasing Asylum penetrates the secret world of Australian-run detention camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru.

At the heart of the documentary is never-before-seen footage that was secretly recorded inside the offshore centers. On camera, detainees explain why they have sought asylum and detail their endless sense of despair at being locked away.

The media is banned from visiting the camps, but Eva Orner, an Australian filmmaker based in Los Angeles, says she was determined to find a way to expose the truth about the detention facilities.

“It has been said that we are committing torture, that we are breaking all of our obligations under the Refugee Convention and yet it continues. And I thought part of the reason was because of this policy of secrecy that the Australian government has been running with the camps for the last fifteen years. No journalists, no cameras, no filmmakers are allowed in and I figured maybe part of the reason Australians were being so comfortable with this is because no one had seen it. And so I set about to show audiences what it looks like and what their taxpayer dollar is paying for,” said Orner.

Orner, the daughter of Jewish migrants from Poland, hopes her film will encourage Australians to demand the offshore policy be abandoned.

She described making Chasing Asylum as one of the hardest projects of her life, but said it is important the world knows how Australia is treating detainees in its offshore centers.

“The camps are horrific. People live in abject poverty in moldy tents. We are the only country in the world to detain children indefinitely. Women, men, children are there. Women and children have been sexually abused. Two men have died - actually, three men have died, another man self-immolated on Nauru this week and died. One man was murdered in a riot by guards and one man died after he cut his foot and did not get medical care and developed septicemia, so I do not think I have to say more than that other than it is horrific,” she said.

Australian officials have defended the camps, insisting they save lives because they are deterrents and have stopped asylum seekers risking their lives at sea trying to reach Australian territory.

Last month, the Manus Island center was declared unconstitutional and illegal by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, and will close, according to the country’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill.

Watch a clip from the film:

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