P H I L O X E N I A - Episode 1
Written by Angus McDonald
4 minute reading time
Looking for answers sometimes raises even more questions- but not in the case of Australia’s offshore refugee processing policy.
Looking at the endless layers of debate that surround refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia, it would be easy to conclude that the issue is mired in so much complexity, it’s impossible to decipher. But it isn’t. It’s simply about how we treat people.
If there is an insurmountable challenge at all, it’s how to present the situation in a way that provokes Australians to care enough about the unconscionable suffering we’ve created on Manus Island and Nauru to force our political leaders to end it. Although countless human rights lawyers, medical professionals, humanitarian organisations, community and media organisations and high profile individuals have consistently called for this for years, we’re still a long way from pulling it off yet.
Just over 15 months ago, together with a couple of worthy collaborators, I began looking for deeper explanations, travelling and filming to learn more about the refugee and asylum seeker issue. To do it, I didn’t start in Australia. I travelled to Greece, a western country less than half our size, who experienced massive refugee arrivals during 2015 and 2016. More than one million forcibly displaced people arrived there in 15 months, landing on the shores of small Greek Islands scattered across the eastern Aegean. Local communities by and large extended then hospitality, assuring them as they reached the beaches, traumatised and desperate, that they had reached safety. Those arriving in turn, responded in the way that human beings do when treated with dignity. They expressed gratitude. Episode 1 of our series P H I L O X E N I A deals specifically with that experience in a small village in the north of Lesvos.
I was so inspired by the largely humanitarian nature of what I witnessed there, and so increasingly uncomfortable about Australia’s conversely inhumane treatment of a relatively minuscule number of arrivals, that after I returned home, I made a decision to create a project to document what I had learned.
We returned to Greece, travelling to several locations and afterwards, to Jordan and then Lebanon. We talked with local communities who had experienced massive arrivals, as well as community organisations and large NGO’s supporting them. We visited the world’s largest Syrian Refugee camp, the Zaatari camp in Jordan which is home to 80,000 people and is a model for how collaborative humanitarian approaches can provide sustainable solutions. Most importantly we met hundreds of refugees and their families during our trips, who despite surviving loss, death and unimaginable trauma before fleeing, routinely humbled us with their grace and hospitality despite having nothing.
All three countries we visited have experienced recent refugee arrivals on a scale that renders the resources, money and energy our government has directed towards punishing just a few thousand people not only ludicrous, but bizarre. Those words are accurate, but I use them carefully because the innocent men, women and children who have needlessly suffered at the hands of the Federal Government are human beings just like us with only one life to live. We’ve spent billions of taxpayer dollars ( unbelievably, about $570,000 per refugee annually ) to make sure that the lives of those transferred offshore are not only put on hold, but that their suffering is further exacerbated, in order to send a message to deter others from coming.
At the beginning of last year, I knew as much about this issue as most Australians, which was admittedly very little. Those on Manus Island and Nauru have been virtually invisible to us since 2013, their plight an abstraction which is easily forgotten. Our consciences when periodically pricked were quickly assuaged by the vitriol and myth-making of senior government officials who as leaders in positions of responsibility, should know a lot better. For misguided political ends, they have callously painted innocent vulnerable people as unworthy, second-rate humans, illegals, criminals, terrorists and queue jumpers. None of these descriptions are true. Their race and religion were surreptitiously used to build fear rather than compassion. Instead of empathy, there was malice and intolerant brutality.
But now, after a year of travelling and researching, I know a lot more and none of what Australia is doing in response to this issue holds up or can be even vaguely defendable. Nothing.
Not a single deflection, rationale or justification for the treatment Australia has dished out to refugees and asylum seekers we’ve banished offshore uttered by those in power has a skerrick of validity.
So who are the victims of this policy? They are simply other human beings and their families with nowhere to go, forced to flee their homes or face the threat of death or persecution if they remain. Those who have made it this far represent an absolutely miniscule number of the 24 million forcibly displaced people globally who have been forced to cross borders to survive. Those arriving here only seek from us what we would all ask for in their position; safety, temporary support and protection until their claims are validated and their futures are resolved. To provide that is not only easy but inexpensive and morally unavoidable.
Instead, the government has transferred them offshore to Government funded, built and managed centres on Manus Island in PNG, and Nauru, and subjected them to five years of neglect, family separation and inexcusable brutality that continues to this day. On Nauru, the numbers include around 130 children, 40 of whom were born there, their whole lives to date spent behind the wire.
Our film project is another attempt among many others more worthy, to increase awareness and contribute to a change in the current refugee policy by our leaders. By presenting a global picture of this massive humanitarian crisis, we want to provide new perspectives about the issue for people, particularly Australians, and put into sharp focus just how cruel and inhumane, how unnecessary, expensive and utterly inept our Federal Government’s approach has been.
I wasn’t sure how to share our content initially. But the aim was to reach as many people as possible and make it easy to access. So we decided to cover it all in 12 monthly episodes and release it free to everyone on youtube.
We’re excited to be able to now release our series P H I L O X E N I A to you. Philoxenia is a Greek word, which describes the cultural tradition of offering friendship and hospitality to the stranger. Episode 1, set in the small fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in Lesvos is live and available to view now. Please subscribe to our YouTube channel to catch every future episode, and please also share it around with others.
We were inspired by the making this series and hope we can inspire you in some way as well by watching.
Broken Men in Paradise, New York Times Magazine
Australia’s Regime of Cruelty, Amnesty International
Get Facts, Refugee Council