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Australia’s hidden refugees fight to tell their stories

Australia has done everything it can to make the refugees it detains in offshore camps voiceless — confiscating phones, refusing journalists access and threatening staff with jail if they speak out about the wretched conditions.

But behind the fences, those detained on the South Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru are telling their stories to the world by embracing the arts: writing articles and books, drawing cartoons and now even making a full-length film shot on smuggled equipment.

“Writing is my weapon to fight and when you are fighting you feel you are alive,” says Behrouz Boochani, who has been held on Manus island, Papua New Guinea, since mid-2013. 

Mr Boochani, a 33-year-old Kurdish journalist who fled Iran when colleagues were arrested, has co-directed a film, Chauka, please tell us the time, which he plans to screen at film festivals. The title refers to the name of a feared solitary confinement centre at the Manus camp, as well as a native bird that is a symbol of the island. 

“We made this movie to tell people around the world what Australia is doing here,” says Mr Boochani, who is also writing a novel. “Also we did it for history.” 

Mr Boochani teamed up with Arash Kamali Sarvestani, an Iranian filmmaker based in the Netherlands, to make the film, which details the experiences of life in Manus, which holds 900 men in cramped compounds with inadequate medical care.

Several refugees have died at Manus and Australia’s other offshore camp at Nauru, a tiny island nation. An Iranian, Reza Barati, was beaten to death in 2014 during disturbances involving locals and police. Two other refugees at Manus died following illnesses. And last year a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker held on Nauru committed suicide by setting himself on fire in front of UN refugee agency staff. 

Australia’s hardline policy on “boat people”, a term coined in the 1970s, has long been contentious. Canberra says it dissuades people from making the treacherous journey in flimsy boats from Indonesia and prevents drownings at sea. But the UN and human rights groups say locking up refugees in offshore camps amounts to “inhuman treatment”.

“The ultimate torture tool in those detention camps is the time itself,” says Mr Sarvestani, who spent countless hours communicating with Mr Boochani via a smuggled phone to complete the film. “Long and tedious years of being held in the camps have put scars on the souls of many of them.”

Another of those affected is “Eaten Fish”, an Iranian asylum seeker who has chronicled his life on Manus through cartoons. Last year he was awarded the “courage in editorial cartooning award” from the Cartoonists Rights Network International. But his mental health has deteriorated and in February he went on hunger strike in protest at the abuses he has suffered on Manus. He called off the hunger strike after three weeks.

“I got very sick after the hunger strike. Now I have to take pain killers beside the other tablets I take,” the 25-year-old says. “Drawing cartoons makes me feel hope.”

Works by Eaten Fish and Abbas Al-Aboudi, a refugee painter held at the Nauru camp, have been displayed at several exhibitions in Australia.

“Art is a means of survival for these refugees — it can help them keep their emotional health,” says Safdar Ahmed, co-founder of The Refugee Art Project, which exhibits and supports refugee artists. “Nothing conveys the truth of their situation better than art.”

The plight of Australia’s hidden refugees was documented in Manus, a play that ran in Tehran throughout March. The thousands of Iranians who saw it include Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, as well as Australian diplomats. 

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist who fled from Iran in 2013 and has been detained on Manus ever since, has co-directed a film about the camp shot on a smuggled mobile phone © michael green

“I interviewed 10 refugees for my play on Manus and Nauru,” says Nazanin Sahamizadeh, the play’s author, who sought help from Mr Boochani to arrange the interviews.

“I want to perform the play in Australia and other places in the world to make people hear the voices of refugees. I want to create a movement towards closing Manus and Nauru,” she says.

Last week Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, held talks with PNG’s leader Peter O’Neill on a plan to close Manus by October. This is likely to be contingent on a controversial deal struck between Mr Turnbull and former US president Barack Obama, who agreed the US would resettle 1,250 refugees.

President Donald Trump has since called this a “dumb” deal, although US officials are continuing to carry out “extreme vetting” of refugees on Manus. But many of the men on the island remain sceptical.

“There is too much uncertainty around the deal with the US and we really don’t know what will happen,” says Mr Boochani. “I myself have not been interviewed for America. I don’t know what will happen to me.”

© Eaten Fish

Via FT