A divided world: depicting the lives of refugees

refugee article

Today, 20 June is World Refugee Day. Blogger in Residence, Penny Hanley, looks into how art and literature depicts the lives of refugees.

“Refugees live in a divided world, between countries in which they cannot live and countries which they may not enter.” Elie Wiesel, American, Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said this. He believes that it is the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide.

After World War II the international community set up a system for helping refugees, those who could not return to their countries “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion” (United Nations).

Australia signed this 1951 agreement and our country is now in breach of this and several other conventions that it has signed and ratified. Australia outsources its international obligations by holding asylum seekers in remote detention centres in ‘inhuman and degrading’ conditions (Amnesty International).

In response to public revelations about the brutal conditions in the detention camps, both on Manus Island and Nauru, the Government has legislated that anyone revealing information about them will be liable to up to two years in jail.

Courageous people

Even so, some courageous people are speaking out. In Eva Orner’s recently released documentary Chasing Asylum about Australian detention centres we see her hidden camera record the damp, mouldy tents on gravel. We hear that they get filled with mosquitoes and sometimes water and frogs. We see inside the better accommodation: World War II tin huts with concrete floors.

The security firm personnel refer to the people by number, not by their names, as if they are criminals. They do not know what crime they have committed and wait for years in uncertainty about their future. Some brave writers and filmmakers, doctors and social workers, are telling the story of this shameful time in Australia’s history.

We all need to tell our stories. Most writing on asylum seekers is about them, not by them. This is unsurprising, since when people are incarcerated in brutal detention centres and denied the basic needs for a dignified existence, there will not be the psychological space for self-expression. They even lack the basic implements necessary for it: when the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Jillian Triggs, visited Nauru the children were begging to borrow any pens and pencils she had with her.

And when and if they are released (as we know, some of them die) it can take years to be able to reflect and to come to terms with any traumatic experience. There are some memoirs by refugees of their experiences on boats and in detention centres, but there is no space to discuss those books here. I discuss some in the longer version of this post on my blog at http://penhanley.wordpress.com.

Powerful words

Fragments of asylum-seekers’ stories still make an impact, even though quoted in someone else’s book. In Madeline Gleeson’s Offshore (NewSouth, 2016) listen to some asylum-seekers’ words, such as the following from people detained at Nauru:

“In our country the Taliban will come onto the bus and they will slash our throat and finish your life. It will take maybe ten or fifteen minutes for us to die. But the English-Australian men are killing us by pain, taking our soul and our life slowly… This is mental torture and soon all of us will be mad.”

A fourteen year old boy said, “let me admit that I wish I was dead in the ocean. At least I would die once in my life, not every second in these detentions.”

A man on Manus said, “Let your government to kill us. We are human beings. We are not bad people. We are educated people. Please help us. Please help. We’re begging you, help us. Our minds don’t work any more. Please help us.”

“In Burma, the government shoots us. Here, they kill us mentally.” Roshingya, from Manus, said.

In their book Refugees: Why seeking asylum is legal and Australia’s policies are not (NewSouth, 2014) Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong quote asylum seekers who explain the impossibility of being a ‘queue jumper’such as Hamid, an Iraqui asylum seeker, who said: “I looked for that queue when I was in North Iraq and they told me that I couldn’t apply for asylum in my country. I also looked for it in Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia. I didn’t have a place to stay and believe me, if I could find a safe way to come, I would have waited, but the truth is, there aren’t any queues.” (p. 63)

What we can do

The Human Rights Law Centre and UNICEF Australia state: “The reported abuse and violence did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred in the context of policy arrangements which are inherently harmful, breach international law and are cloaked in secrecy.” (Gleeson, p. 320)

In spite of the best efforts by a succession of Governments some of these breaches are on public record. And Madeline Gleeson closes her book with the empowering reality that since it is, it’s down to the public now.

Find out what you can do at:







PeninStudyFranzePenny Hanley has been a film critic, book reviewer, artists’ model, caterer’s assistant, and deck hand on a yacht. Then after a 20 year editing career, she became a freelance writer. She has had a novel and 20 short stories published. Books commissioned include Creative Lives: Personal Papers of Australian Artists and Writers (NLA, 2009) and Inspiring Australians: The first fifty years of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (ASP, 2015). She has a PhD in Communications from the University of Canberra and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the Australian National University. Penny loves books, cinema, travel and dancing the Argentine tango.

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