Director: Eva Orner
Cast: Nicole Judge, Mark Isaacs, Martin Appleby, Michael Bachelard, David Manne
Watch Chasing Asylum online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / YouTube
Directed by Eva Orner (one of the producers on Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side), this powerful and timely documentary exposes Australia’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers. Heart-breaking and rage-inducing in equal measure, it’s an important film that demands to be seen.
Orner opens the film with a concise summary of Australia’s immigration policies over the last 15 years, noting that governments have become increasingly hard-line on the issue, with campaigns featuring slogans like “Stop the Boats”. The tough-on-immigration stance, endorsed by all parties, led directly to the 2013 announcement that all asylum seekers arriving by boat would be housed offshore indefinitely and never be permitted to resettle in Australia.
To that end, the Australian government established official refugee camps on the islands of Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea, which it promptly filled with asylum-seekers, effectively dumping them there and forgetting about them, apparently in the hopes that the camps’ atrocious living conditions would force many of the refugees to seek asylum elsewhere.
Orner was prompted to make the film, after the deaths and subsequent riots that took place on the island of Nauru in 2014. Unsurprisingly, no journalists are permitted to visit the camps, but that hasn’t stopped Orner from obtaining a wealth of covertly-filmed footage, including testimonials from refugees and revealing clips of riots, with security personnel apparently relishing the idea of being able to shoot people.
The videos give a clear idea of the appalling living conditions on the islands, such as the use of huge, hot tin sheds to house people in already sweltering, squalid environments. This is intercut with talking head interviews with former guards, support workers and volunteers, as well as contributions from human rights lawyer David Manne and journalists David Marr and Michael Bachelard.
The appalling living conditions alone would be scandalous enough, but the relentless catalogue of abuse (including physical and sexual) and wilful neglect is utterly shameful. The sheer level of incompetence, in particular, is mind-boggling – support worker Mark Isaacs reveals that unskilled university students and seniors were hired as staff on Nauru and offered no training, other than an instruction to “go and help and be their friends”. As one shell-shocked volunteer explains, this effectively amounted to “asking them not to kill themselves”, as many refugees were distraught and suicidal.
The sense of outrage and heartbreak is further compounded by Orner’s footage of refugees explaining their reasons for leaving their homelands in the first place, and their utter despair and being placed in a permanent limbo, with no way back and no hope of being housed anywhere else. That level of desperation is evident in the horrific list of events witnessed by the volunteers, who recall detainees starving themselves, burning themselves, cutting themselves and stitching their lips and eyelids shut.
Alongside the devastating testimonials, Orner captures a wealth of telling detail, such as a simple line of graffiti – “Kill us” or “Welcome to coffin” – scrawled above a wall of payphones, or hastily-filmed shots that suddenly bring home the scale of the operation on the islands.
Impressively directed and skilfully edited, this is an immensely powerful documentary that presents an urgent and timely argument for compassion in the way governments deal with refugees.