Secret film shows plight of forgotten refugees in Australian camp

VIDEO: REUTERS
An undated handout picture received from the Refugee Action Coalition on Aug 7, 2017 shows the Australian-run East Lorengau Transit Accommodation for refugees in East Lorengau on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
An undated handout picture received from the Refugee Action Coalition on Aug 7, 2017 shows the Australian-run East Lorengau Transit Accommodation for refugees in East Lorengau on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.PHOTO: REFUGEE ACTION COALITION
An undated handout image from Amnesty International claiming to show the view of the family living quarters at the country's Australian-run detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
An undated handout image from Amnesty International claiming to show the view of the family living quarters at the country's Australian-run detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - A movie secretly shot inside an Australian-run detention centre 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 (Oct 8).

"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, 160km north of Australia.

Nearly 2,000 men, women and children are held on Manus Island and at another Australian-funded centre 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 criticised 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 US President Barack Obama late last year agreed to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in Australian immigration centres 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 US President Donald Trump described as "dumb" but begrudgingly said he will honour.

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

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

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

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