Chasing Asylum

Illustration Karla Engdahl

Chasing Asylum, directed by Academy Award winner Eva Orner, is arguably the most important piece of investigative journalism in recent Australian fi lm history. The documentary frankly reveals the shocking conditions of Australia’s off shore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, and explores the physical, mental, emotional and financial costs of this detrimental asylum seeker policy. Just a month after the 2016 Australian Federal Election, and the solidification of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, Chasing Asylum is becoming increasingly relevant in the domestic and global context of the refugee crisis.

In recent weeks, xenophobic outrage has been strongly expressed across the globe: Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hate speech; the elevation of Pauline Hanson to the Australian Senate on an anti-Islam platform; Sonia Kruger’s recent calls to ban Muslim immigration into Australia; and the history-making ‘Brexit’ decision. There have been repeated vocalisations of ‘anti-Other’ sentiments around the world. Unfortunately, this is not novel, nor is targeting ‘illegal’ asylum seekers unprecedented. Australian asylum seekers policies have been a major political issue for over a decade as Chasing Asylum reminds viewers of the 2001 ‘Tampa’ and ‘Children Overboard’ incidents that were unfolding in Australian politics. Such affairs involved the Australian Government stirring moral panic regarding asylum seeker arrivals, which ultimately catalysed the beginning of off shore detention as part of the ‘Pacific Solution’. While the topic of asylum-seeking remains heavily politicised today, the global refugee crisis continues to mount: the numbers of refugees are the highest since the aftermath of World War II.

Chasing Asylum is a ground-breaking insight into how far we haven’t come. The documentary thoroughly canvasses the current policy of off shore detention of people arriving via ‘illegal’ channels, accounting for the three-word slogans (“Stop the boats”) which have been drummed into national consciousness. Through the testimonies of camp staff, interviews with journalists, and secretly recorded footage, Chasing Asylum provides a rare glimpse into the closeted lives of detainees on Manus Island and Nauru. In doing so, the documentary persists in fostering serious public discourse, which has been largely absent due to restricted media access to the centres.

Successive Australian leadership, on both sides of the political spectrum, have pursued off shore detention in order to reduce the number of the so-called ‘illegal’ boat arrivals, and, to limit the number of deaths at sea. While the documentary acknowledges the veracity of claims that deaths at sea have, in fact, reduced, Chasing Asylum also articulates the human cost of this reduction.

The documentary contends that the current political stance has devolved into a policy of deterrence: poor conditions in off shore detention centres and long-term incarceration are intended to dissuade future asylum seekers from arriving by boat. This point is reiterated by camera footage, which draws attention to the threatening Australian Government posters peppered throughout Indonesia. These posters, and accompanying video propaganda unequivocally advise asylum seekers that if they attempt to reach Australia via ‘illegal’ boat channels, they will never be settled in Australia: “You will not make Australia home”. Furthermore, Chasing Asylum elucidates the extensive financial strain involved in implementing this deterrence, citing that over a billion dollars annually is sunk into remanding asylum seekers off shore, which amounts to around $500,000 – per refugee, per year – for however long they remain in detention.

The ramifications of long-term detention are both physical and mental. The documentary details the extent of guard aggression, provides footage of violent riots at the centres, and remembers the tragic deaths of Reza Barati and Hamid Kehazaei whilst in detention. Chasing Asylum projects the shocking effect of detention on mental health, detailing medical reports of self-harm in children, and evidence of detainees engaging in lip and eyelid-stitching, cutting, and the ingestion of poisons.

Australia is the only country in the world with a policy of indefinitely detaining children. There are irrevocable, pervasive ramifications of detaining young children. Chasing Asylum suggests that, in addition to mental health concerns, these children also exhibit behavioural issues such as identifying as their boat identification numbers and presenting highly sexualised conduct. As the illicit camera record the camps, desperate slogans scrawled across the tents and living spaces are revealed: “we hate Nauru”, “kill us”. Overwhelmingly, off shore processing is depicted as seriously failing vulnerable people.

Chasing Asylum is a candid examination of Australia’s asylum seeker policies in practice. Providing a rare, confronting insight into the conditions on Manus island and Nauru, and questioning both the political motivations, and the tangible human cost of persisting with these policies, this documentary is one of the most salient commentaries on Australian immigration policy.


Jennifer Worthing

The author Jennifer Worthing

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