Disconnected and desperate: How Australia keeps refugees in tech limbo
Officially known as "illegal maritime arrivals," these refugees sought asylum in Australia but instead have been detained for years, thousands of miles offshore. Technology could be their lifeline, but they live in radio silence.
Claire ReillyFormer Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Behrouz Boochani has been stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific for the past three years. He's 7,000 miles from home and still far from the place he's trying to reach. His lifeline is a feeble internet connection that he says is slowly turning his hair gray.
Still, he's only ever a few minutes away on WhatsApp.
The political journalist fled Iran after his offices were raided and colleagues were arrested. Traveling to Australia to seek asylum as a refugee, Boochani arrived by boat in July 2013 on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, 1,000 miles off the coast of Western Australia.
That's as far as he got.
Not long afterward, he was transferred to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and was told by the Australian government he wouldn't be allowed to settle in Australia.
Unwilling to return to Iran and blocked from reaching Australia, he's been working as a journalist and human rights advocate, writing remotely from Manus Island. In 2013, he traded clothes and shoes for about 50 cigarettes that he used to buy a beat-up mobile phone from smugglers. When it was confiscated by guards, he had to sell more possessions to buy another.
"Without access to technology the Australian government could do anything to us, even kill us, and no one would know," he tells me via WhatsApp in just one of more than 50 exchanges we have in July and August. The messages come in quick succession. His life feels a long way from mine as I sit at my desk in Sydney.
Refugees traveling across Europe are the face of the refugee crisis on the nightly news. But the 1,296 asylum seekers in Australian-funded detention centers suffer in radio silence.
Australia's current immigration policy was forged in 2001 by former Prime Minister John Howard, now famous for banning automatic guns across the country.
Howard refused to let 438 Afghan refugees -- rescued from their sinking 20-meter wooden boat in international waters north of Christmas Island -- enter Australian waters. His clarion call is now embedded in the national consciousness: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
It's a hard line and, some may say, an ironic policy on newcomers, considering Australia's history. Set up as a British colony in 1788, most Australians trace their heritage overseas, with 28 percent of the population born abroad and just 2.5 percent identifying as indigenous.
But Australia's immigration policy is clear: "No way. You will not make Australia home."
The department's "toughest border protection measures ever" were advertised in 17 languages, along with "No Way" posters in overseas ports and comic strips seeded on social media networks in a bid to make Australia's closed-borders policy viral.
These asylum seekers have their refugee claims processed either on the tiny island nation of the Republic of Nauru or on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. People found to be refugees, like Boochani, have two options: resettle in PNG or return home with assistance from the Australian government.
After Australia's offshore processing policy was put in place, the first asylum seekers on Nauru waited more than a year for the government to make determinations on their refugee claims. Asylum seekers in PNG waited two years. Many are still waiting.
Boochani refused to have his refugee claim assessed in PNG because he says this goes against his political beliefs. "I could not accept that the Australian [government] could sell me as a slave to PNG," he told me via WhatsApp.
He was given status as a refugee by the PNG government, "even though I never gave them my case. I didn't want to accept that but they told me I have no choice. I am the only one in Manus Island whose case has been determined without any application."
Despite spending AU$1.1 billion to fund operations in Nauru and Manus Island in the 2015-16 financial year, the DIBP told me that "neither the Australian government nor the department runs or manages" these facilities, that they are run by the PNG and Nauruan governments, and that "any questions about the policies and facilities are matters for those governments."
As asylum seekers spend months -- and years -- waiting for their claims to be heard, one of the few respites comes in communicating with the outside world. But for centers set up by a developed country, access to technology on Manus Island and Nauru is incredibly limited. With no mobile phones, limited internet and phone access, monitoring of social media and restrictions on journalists trying to visit, these centers and the people trapped there are essentially cut off from the world.
Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens Party is one of the few politicians to have visited all of Australia's immigration detention centers in the past eight years, including the processing centers on Manus Island and Nauru.
"They're prisons," she told me in June. "They're not established as places of help or hope. They're established as places of deterrence and punishment."
Graham Thom, Amnesty International's Australia refugee coordinator, has visited refugee camps and detention centers all over the world. But the lack of phones in Australian-run centers is unique. Even refugee camps in Jordan near Syria have good mobile phone coverage, he said.
"It's just bizarre to think people in a refugee camp on the border of the conflict zone have better mobile phone access than somebody who's brought to a detention center in Australia," he said.
The Australian government runs nine immigration detention centers on the mainland and one on Christmas Island, as well as the facilities on Manus Island and Nauru. According to Thom, DIBP policy dictates that refugees who arrive by boat are banned from using phones and have their mobile devices taken when they arrive. Others in detention, such as criminals being deported from the country, can keep theirs.
That's created a black market in phones.
"It is a friend or visitor who will purchase a phone and give it to one of the detainees (who can have phones)," said Thom, "and they then simply pass it on to the friend (who can't). Otherwise, it is the detainees selling them amongst themselves."
Landline phones are available in these centers, but the DIBP wouldn't comment on the banning of phones or about certain groups of detainees getting access to mobile phones, saying only that "detainees in Australian immigration detention facilities have access to make phone calls to whomever they choose."
In April, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the indefinite detention of asylum seekers in that country is "illegal." After the decision, the Manus facility was opened slightly, with refugees free to come and go from the camp. Boochani said the change also meant refugees could start bringing in phones.
But the ruling put the future of the Manus Island processing center, and the people living there, under an even greater cloud of uncertainty.
Meanwhile, mobile access is still limited across Australia's network of detention facilities and totally banned in Nauru. In speaking to politicians, refugee advocates and one former Manus Island security worker, the message was the same: The crackdown on mobile communication comes down to control.
Virtually every modern phone is also a pocket camera. These devices are a means to quickly send pictures to journalists and whistleblowers via encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
"Once you're in detention, people don't like you having that level of control," said Thom. "They don't like phones, they don't like photography."
Australian journalist Shane Bazzi told me he uses Telegram to stay in contact with refugees in Nauru, who spend hours at a time uploading videos of protests in the center using their meager internet connections.
Cat and mouse game
Under the ban on Manus Island, detainees risked being searched and having mobile phones confiscated.
Former prison officer Martin Appleby saw these raids on contraband firsthand. From 2013 to 2014, he worked as a training officer and guard with G4S, the private security company overseeing operations in the Manus Island processing center.
When images from inside the center started appearing in The Guardian and other media outlets in Australia, it was apparent detainees were covertly filming their surroundings to expose the austere living conditions. As a result, guards began searching the facility and confiscating devices.
"They were photographing foodstuffs that weren't up to standard, they were photographing toilets which weren't up to standard," Appleby said. "Then all those phones were confiscated."
The staff didn't actually confiscate them all because they couldn't find them all, he added. "But they tried their darnedest."
Although PNG police were brought in to search the compound, Appleby said detainees were resourceful. "They might dismantle the phone and part of it might live in one compound, and part of it might live in another. You wouldn't find the entire phone itself."
Their goal was to get messages out to activists in Australia, though it was against regulations of the camp at the time.
"It was that cat and mouse game of trying to find the communication device that the guys were using," Appleby said.
Boochani describes the ordeal he went through to keep the phone he sold his clothes for. Guards raided his room twice. "The first time they took my phone and told me I don't have rights to a phone and they threatened me that it would be bad for my future if I had a phone," he recalled. "The second time they couldn't find my phone. I have to say that I was working under the blanket -- that was my office."
Since the court decision lifting the phone ban in April, Boochani has been in constant contact with journalists and refugee advocates outside PNG, writing about life inside Manus for news outlets such as The Guardian and New Matilda and posting photos from inside the facility on his Facebook page.
Threats and intimidation
Phones are a lifeline in detention. Without them, asylum seekers face isolation and a lack of independence. They're still able to communicate with their immigration lawyers through interpreters. But Thom from Amnesty International says access to computers and landline phones is "very limited."
"Are they always working? No," Thom said. "If they're broken and they're in a remote place like Christmas Island, how quickly can you repair a phone?"
He describes visiting the Curtin detention center in far outback Western Australia, where he was shown a bank of 10 public phones, only to be told by one detainee that just one of those phones was working, in a center housing 500 detainees. The DIBP would not comment on the maintenance of phones or whether calls were charged to detainees.
Both Thom and Senator Hanson-Young said the other major risk is the monitoring of phone and internet use. "Everyone is very well aware that everything that they access, all of their Facebook pages, everything is monitored," Hanson-Young told me.
That same level of threat and intimidation -- that everything they do online will be monitored -- goes for staff as well, Hanson-Young said.
"I've spoken to many whistleblowers who say that they're reminded every day by their managers before they walk through the gates, that they're not allowed to talk about what they see...and to be aware that everything is watched," she said.
While Thom said it's difficult to know exactly what activity is monitored, refugees still have concerns about how they connect with the outside world. How do you stay in touch with your family when someone is always watching what you say?
"If one of the ways you can communicate is through fax, and the only fax machine is in a room full of guards, are you going to leave a piece of paper there complaining about your treatment by guards?" Thom said.
"If the only phones you have are in a bank of public phones, so everybody standing around you can hear exactly what you're saying, are you going to talk about how you were tortured or raped or abused when everyone is standing around?"
Everything to hide
The silence from detention is due, in part, to the sheer remoteness of Manus Island and Nauru. Few Australian journalists have the means to travel to these remote locations.
But it's not just a question of geography.
Journalists are asked to apply for an AU$8,000 visa to visit Nauru, with no guarantee of approval. I didn't even get that far. The Nauruan director of immigration informed me via email in July that an "accommodation shortage" meant I couldn't apply. He provided no further details on when this policy changed or if it would be reversed.
In the end, "Operation Sovereign Borders" keeps asylum seekers in offshore detention out of sight and out of mind.
"They're black holes to the media," Hanson-Young said of the detention centers. "They're black holes to the public."
But under this shroud of secrecy lies a festering sore.
Former security officer Appleby describes the conditions on Manus as horrifying.
"There's a World War II tin shed...this is the main accommodation unit within Foxtrot compound," he said. "It housed 120 double bunks, so there are 240 men in a tin hut, on a concrete floor.
"It was extremely hot. The stench was unbelievable."
There were meals in the mess hall, where detainees were marked off a roll according to their boat arrival number, rather than their name. Days were spent indoors, trying to stay cool in front of rusty pedestal fans. Boredom was rife.
He describes the recreation facilities as a ragged volleyball net, with nowhere to play except on jagged coral. Appleby would see asylum seekers drag themselves, shirtless, across this coral ground, resulting in "excruciating" lacerations. They could then go to the medical tent, just so they didn't have to "sit under the same old tree they've been sitting under for a thousand days."
Appleby said he worked with three suicide attempts and was a first responder to two. He was assigned to a suicide watch for one male rape victim, who was then sent back into the general population after two and a half days, forced to return to the place he was raped. "The conditions in Foxtrot would not be allowed to occur within Australia," he said.
Australia is a signatory to several international human rights treaties including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the United Nations Convention against Torture. Regardless of its internal immigration policies, the Australian Human Rights Commission warns the Australian government still has legal obligations under these conventions, including "not to subject people to arbitrary detention" or "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declined to be interviewed for this story. I put through eight requests over a number of weeks for an interview with the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. His office advised me that he received a "large number of interview requests" but ultimately did not respond to my emails.
Dutton's predecessor, former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, also declined to be interviewed. Former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and John Howard declined to be interviewed. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard didn't respond to a request for an interview.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights didn't respond to request for comment. The former security contractors for Manus Island, G4S, declined to respond to questions about the centers, citing "confidentiality obligations." Current security contractors for Manus and Nauru Wilson Security declined to comment on the record.
With little connection to the outside world and no path to Australia, refugees under Australia's care wait and wait.
Voices for the hopeless
"In Europe, people are trying their hardest to make sure individuals are connected with family" said Hanson-Young.
"We've seen organizations come up with solar-powered mobile phone batteries as a way of ensuring that people get help and hope. Here in Australia, we have the exact opposite," she said. "The government's idea is that if we isolate people so much, if we strip away hope, they might give up and go home."
The DIBP offers assistance, including financial aid, for asylum seekers wishing to return to their home country, a compensation figure now reportedly as high as AU$20,000 per person. That amount stands in stark contrast with government figures that put the cost of housing each asylum seeker in offshore detention at more than AU$400,000 per year.
On Manus Island, Boochani isn't giving up. In June, he delivered a video message on Australia's "Q&A" TV program to the show's high-profile panelist, Prime Minister Turnbull, asking why he was exiled to the "Manus prison."
Turnbull responded by saying Boochani had the option of resettling in PNG. "I'm sure that he would rather come to Australia, but that option is not available to him."
"It has been the longstanding position of this Government to work with PNG to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country of origin," Dutton said in a statement.
In a message over WhatsApp, minutes after the news broke, Boochani said, "It's incredible for people in Manus prison that feel close to freedom."
Communication lockdown for refugees outside Australia's borders
But the political machine moves slowly. There's still no timeline for closure, no clarity around the future of refugees on Manus and no details on what will happen to refugees who refuse to return home or be resettled in PNG. And there's no certainty for the 442 refugees and asylum seekers living in Australian-funded camps on Nauru.
The only promise from Australia's immigration minister is that "no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Center will ever be settled in Australia."
So Boochani keeps working, helping those waiting to have their claims assessed, and he continues to speak out. "My Facebook page has been getting bigger," he said of his 1,700 friends and followers. "It's like a small media outlet now."
Most important, he still has his phone.
"Technology is so important to us," he types to me from an island, 2,000 miles away. "It gives us the power to send out our voice."