I was 17 when I first came face to face with refugees. It was 1995 in Melbourne, Australia, and it was a Saturday. As usual I was out taking pictures of my friends skateboarding. We rolled up to a spot near the state Parliament. Across the street a protest was taking place — Cypriot women calling for the government to help them find their sons who had disappeared during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. I left my friends and took a photograph of the protesters.
A few days later, in the darkroom, I pulled the film out of the wash and saw the image. The Australia I grew up in was a racist country: Slurs were common in conversation; news outlets were openly prejudiced against entire groups; and politicians rarely took a moral high road. But to me, this photograph went beyond all that. The women’s pain was universal: They were mothers grieving for their lost children.
I decided to become a photojournalist to help refugees tell their stories, and to show their plight. I was stunned by the lack of compassion and the outright racism I saw in my countrymen. I was angry as only a teenager can be with the politicians who fanned the flames of xenophobia.
After 20 years of photographing asylum seekers around the world, I am still angry.
I’ve seen people displaced by sub-Saharan African wars that dragged on for so long that their children and grandchildren were born in enormous, forgotten refugee camps. I’ve photographed the Kurds, who have known only persecution — an entire ethnic group that remains stateless. I’ve followed Syrian refugee families into the tumultuous Aegean Sea. I’ve witnessed people trapped at borders and beaten by the police; children separated from their parents, wandering on busy, unfamiliar roads; families literally running for their lives. Sometimes, when they were not fast enough, I’ve seen people murdered.
And yet, in all that time, I have not seen the level of cruelty toward these vulnerable people that the Australian government is perpetrating against the refugees on Manus Island.
For a week along with the columnist Roger Cohen I interviewed men on Manus, a remote island in Papua New Guinea, while trying to fly under the radar of police and immigration officials who didn’t want me there. I left the island devastated and ashamed to be Australian.
The men, over 900 of them, from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, have been detained since 2013. I’ve never come across refugees this broken. The vast majority didn’t want to share their stories with me. “What’s the point?” they would say. They have been beaten into despair, tortured by disempowerment.
Many of the asylum seekers identified themselves as atheists, having given up their faith in God. Others have taken up drinking, or trading cigarettes — they receive up to three packets per week — for local marijuana. Many take sleeping pills handed out by nurses. Anything to pass the time and escape from their anguish.
Asylum seekers are usually traumatized by long, dangerous journeys. What makes the situation on Manus exceptional is that the Australian government is inflicting even more trauma. My fellow Australians have allowed this to happen; we elect our leaders and we must take responsibility for their actions. But we don’t. Instead we’ve allowed them to use the plight of the Manus refugees, as well as refugee families on the island nation of Nauru, as props in a political power struggle. We’ve allowed ourselves to see the refugees as queue jumpers, as undesirable, as criminals. We appear to have lost touch with our humanity.
“You will never, ever settle in Australia” is the slogan from our leaders. On Manus, the catchphrase is “I am hopeless.” These people we have detained for the past three and a half years once looked forward to a future. They had dreams, and they risked their lives to find safety.
Occasionally, a man expressed sadness, maybe even anger, about what had happened to him. But most stories of life and death were told deadpan.
Ashley Gilbertson is a photojournalist whose most recent book is Bedrooms of the Fallen.