2016, Movies

Chasing Asylum (2016, Eva Orner)

When I lived in Australia well over a decade ago, the Australian government would take the “boat people” – refugees coming illegally by boat to Northern Australia, Western Australian Queensland and some Australian islands – who made it ashore and throw them in jails in the middle of nowhere in the Outback. The boat people would stay in awful conditions but would be, in some if not most cases, allowed to apply for refugee status in Australia (which could take 3-5 years or something like that). If my memory is correct, the jails were run by private organizations, and so when people would complain to the private company about human rights and the private company would say “Speak to the government.” Then the federal government would say “Speak to the private company.” A Green Party MP made some illegal video of one of the jails which got leaked while I lived there. It looked awful.

Well, things have changed. In 2013, Australia moved these detention centres off-shore, paying huge amounts of money to Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house these refugees far from Australia, spending huge amounts of money to intercept the boats before they get to Australia, and spending huge amounts of money to provide security for the off-shore detention centres. (Seriously, tons of money: AUD$1.2 billion or something like that, or approximately AUD$500,000 per refugee. At one point in the film, we hear about how Australia provided one security guard per every two refugees on a plane they were using to ship refugees, or “transferees” as they call them, to a detention centre. It’s like they were violent criminals or something…)

This film combines smuggled and leaked video of the detention centres with interviews with former detainees and staff, and some interviews with Australian refugee advocates and journalists, stranded asylum seekers and the families of the two refugees who died in Australian custody. It is a damning indictment of a country’s radical anti-refugee policy, one that is out of step with most of the rest of the “developed world” even though they are arguably in a better position to help. (And at $500,000 a refugee, they can sure afford to do other things with this money, whether its to treat the refugees differently or something else.) It’s one of those films where things just get worse and worse. At the beginning you may say to yourself, “Well, this isn’t sooo bad, at least they didn’t die…” and well, later you understand why so many of the detainees try to kill themselves.

It is absolutely biased, but given that it is biased towards these human beings who are just trying to escape an awful life – a life that both Canada and Australia have contributed to creating in some cases – it’s hard to be angry that the other side is only presented in rather brusque, out-of-context TV clips. This is a policy from a country that just doesn’t give a shit about the human cost. The only thing they care about it is “stopping the boats,” which they did. They don’t seem to care about anything else. Given that every single one of the five PMs who have been in power in the last 20 years (four in the last 9) has supported this policy, it’s hard to see how they care about anything else beyond “stopping the boats.” (When I say “they” I mean a plurality of voters who vote for the politicians who perpetuate this policy.)

This policy is an embarrassment not just to Australia but to humanity. The film is right to draw comparisons between countries turning away the boats of Jews escaping the Holocaust and what is going on with this policy currently. Sure, far from a majority of these people are running away from that kind of persecution, but it’s a slippery slope. (And, people escaping from ISIS are arguably running away from similar persecution.) Why is it important to save people running away from certain types of terror but not others?

Hopefully lots of people watch this movie and become more aware of what is going on. (I was almost completely unaware that Australia had moved these jails off-shore and I once lived there.) And hopefully this film inspires some people in Australia to vote for politicians who aren’t okay with treating people like animals.

Well worth your time.


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