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Secret Film Shows Plight of 'Forgotten' Refugees in Australian Camp


FILE - A small group of Muslim refugees pray at sunset while others play soccer at an Australian-run camp for asylum seekers on the small Pacfic island of Nauru, Sept. 20, 2001. Australia run similar camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

A movie secretly shot inside an Australian-run detention center for asylum seekers highlights the plight of thousands of "forgotten" refugees who have been marooned for years on remote Pacific islands, its co-directors said on Sunday.

"Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time", which had its international premiere at the London Film Festival, offers a glimpse into daily life at a detention complex on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, 160 km (100 miles) north of Australia.

Nearly 2,000 men, women and children are held on Manus Island and at another Australian-funded center on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, where most of them have been given refugee status.

But despite their refugee status, many have been held for four years in conditions criticized by the United Nations and rights groups.

"This movie is our voice and we want people around the world to hear it," co-director Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist from Iran, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Manus, where he has been held since 2013.

Canberra's hardline immigration policy requires asylum seekers intercepted at sea trying to reach Australia to be sent for processing on Manus Island and Nauru. They are told they will never be settled in Australia.

"People are dying on this island," said Boochani, referring to the recent suicide of two asylum seekers.

Boochani filmed the documentary on a mobile phone and sent it in short clips via WhatsApp to Dutch-Iranian film-maker Arash Kamali Sarvestani, who made it into a movie.

Most of the footage was recorded surreptitiously.

"We were alone ... I, Behrouz, and a smart phone - that's it," Sarvestani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London.

The movie shows asylum seekers struggling to cope with the camp's monotony and prolonged separation from their families, while a journalist investigates reports of ill-treatment in a solitary confinement unit nicknamed "Chauka" after a local bird.

Interviews are alternated with stark, silent shots of a butterfly, a kitten or children playing on the other side of the security fence separating the camp from the outside world.

"We wanted to make it poetic, we wanted to give space to the audience to think," Sarvestani said.

Boochani couldn't attend the London premiere as he is not allowed to leave Manus Island. He and Sarvestani have never met in person.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama late last year agreed to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in Australian immigration centers in PNG and Nauru. In exchange, Australia agreed to take Central American refugees.

In September, a few dozen refugees left for resettlement in the United States under the refugee swap that U.S. President Donald Trump described as "dumb" but begrudgingly said he will honor.

But Australia is now facing increased pressure to resettle asylum seekers from Manus Island because of the planned October 31 closure of the camp that has been subject to violence from locals.

Concerns persist that many of the refugees will not be offered U.S. resettlement.

"Everything is uncertain ... we are worried," said Boochani.

Australian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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