• Hannah Ferguson

The transformative power of testimony: 'The Messenger' podcast and Australia's immigration controls

Most Australians can recall taking part in a grade nine history lesson which glossed over the White Australia Policy, hearing a Prime Minister fortify their position on ‘stopping the boats’ during election season or even following nightly news stories on the sinking of the Tampa in 2001. The history of immigration and refugee law in this country is evidence of an inherent cultural objection to asylum seekers and refugees being settled in Australia. The policies, decisions and procedures of this century do not stray far from the racially charged policies following federation, a disturbing truth our population refuses to admit. These connections are exemplified within the current political landscape, with the announcement of new English language requirements for partnership visa’s announced and publicised in the Federal Budget on Tuesday the 6th October 2020, by Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge. This decision is a testament to the continued barriers Australia’s political landscape enforces. Engaging with immigration and refugee law in such an expansive way has been a transformative experience to say the least. At the forefront of my mind is a developing belief, that the specific purpose of offshore detention is one of, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for Australian people. It is a way to deter our moral judgement and instinct and to push the suffering of individuals to an external geographical location. This quite simply is a stance of ignorance many of us take to avoid feelings of fault and immense guilt surrounding the suffering, trauma and often fatal implications of these horrific conditions. 'The Messenger' ties us back to our wrongdoing as a community.

The Messenger follows Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat, chronicling his experiences on Manus Island during his detention under Australia’s immigration regime. A 10-part podcast series produced by Behind the Wire and the Wheeler Centre and featuring journalist Michael Green, The Messenger is unique in centring the voice of an asylum seeker, cutting through the noise and often vitriolic nature of socio-political debate to examine the human side of the domestic and international legal dichotomy. The Messenger was in many ways, an excruciating experience for me as a listener. It’s forthright an oftentimes jarring nature stems directly from its ability to transport us, as listeners to a testimony that refuses to anaesthetise the horrific conditions of offshore detention. Undoubtedly one of the most impactful pieces of work I’ve ever experienced, this audio series brought me into a story, or perhaps more accurately, a crisis, that I was guilty of overlooking for longer than I feel comfortable admitting. This project upended my ability to exist with wilful political ignorance of a pertinent human rights crisis. The Messenger, instead, commanded my attention, guilt and shame in order to transform my thinking and demand accountability.

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Bearing witness to Aziz’s trauma, anguish and story is confronting to say the least, but serves as a powerful tool for humanising the legislation and political decision-making that toys with the wellbeing and in many cases, survival, of those seeking a future in Australia. To listen to countless calls and interviews between Michael and Aziz through a transparent audio format deepens the tie to the hideous truth of immigration controls on Manus Island, and gives rise to the notion that in order to seek asylum in Australia, you must suffer disciplinary action. The binary these podcast episodes offer is vital, showcasing the experiences of Aziz in the day-to-day hardships of detention on Manus, contrasted against the legal backdrop of a landmark decision in Namah v Pato, and his refusal to resettle in Papua New Guinea. Perhaps the most profound experience for a listener was during the portion of recording in which Aziz recounts his consequential imprisonment and the strikes he endures in order to cement his position as not only a human seeking basic rights, but as a humanitarian suffering for a cause much more pervasive than himself. This material forces you to remain attentive and reflexive, shedding light on the lack of content, coverage and transparency we as a public receive, driving me to re-evaluate our democratic right to a free and diversified press. If Aziz’s message alone can ultimately change my entire perception of our current political climate, how can we honestly say our political landscape and media coverage are committed to amplifying diverse and stories, knowing the awareness and transformative response these experiences trigger? The Messenger communicated the importance of looking beyond mainstream media coverage, to look to the outliers for a more panoramic perspective of the controversies challenging our institutions.

In examining the conditions of offshore processing and detention, episode two of the podcast features psychologist and expert witness to the conditions of Manus Island, Doctor John Zammit. John described the durability of the blocks Aziz lived in, ‘a tin structure, curved, from the old days, war days’ with very little light or movement, he concluded that the conditions were, ‘hellish’ and ‘felt like a prison’. The power in John’s perspective is in elucidating the vast paradigm between the Australian experience and the Australian treatment of those trying to seek solace and safety within our borders. ‘I think there are rules to make it very difficult for the individuals, asking permission for toilet paper.... it’s humiliating, it’s dehumanising.’ Many artefacts and human stories have highlighted the connection between Australia’s colonial history and the incarceration of foreigners, Behrouz Boochani describes this as a historical annihilation of human beings. Green notes that the Australian Government had passed laws to prevent those working in offshore detention facilities from speaking publicly about the nature and conditions of the centres, threatening these employees with prison sentences. Interestingly, the Australian government eventually exempted medical professionals from this legality. In connecting The Messenger to broader legal issues related to offshore processing, non-compliance with human rights law at an international level is a fundamental consideration. Described as, ‘a gulag’ over which Australia as a state claims agency, the pervasive issues of mental and physical healthcare and the poor quality of facilities indicate severe and consistent occurrences of both negligence and abuse. John described the context of indefinite detention as having a torturous and intolerable impact on the human psyche, with Green linking these effects to the experiences Aziz revealed to him, witnessing people attempting suicide and self-harm within the facilities on a regular basis. Australia’s responsibility for both psychological and physical damage suffered by refugees is undeniable. The Australian government may be able to evade international human rights responsibilities in regards to immigrants, but it is incontrovertible that the current state of detention centres and the care asylum seekers receive are inconsistent with our international obligations. In 2015, an Australian senate committee interim report concluded that Australia holds joint obligations with The Nauruan Government to comply with the Refugee Convention. However, it is more than apparent that breaches are frequent, and that human rights violations are a common occurrence within these facilities.

The podcast format is an instrumental medium developed to convey expression and nuance. The diverse selection of audio clippings are deliberately employed to offer a panoramic perspective of the cultural, political and societal dynamics at play within the time period of Aziz’s detention. As a listener I felt drawn to the truth in Aziz’s discourse, alternating between hope and potential for the future, and despair for the current and indefinite suffering he faced alongside a community of individuals at risk. Green’s undeviating focus on only the most important legal and political developments, explained in plain and consistent language are strategic in emphasising the course of Australia’s political decision-making. Highlighted against the backdrop of media coverage and expert and eyewitness opinion, a nuance is developed which allows Aziz to amplify his perspective and use alternate testimony as a springboard for sharing his own truth, further proving the evidentiary discrepancies between the media and political figures of prominence. As a listener, you are offered a dichotomy of voices and what manages to stand out is the clinical, sanitised surface level offerings by figures such as Scott Morrison, who describe the issues on Manus as, ‘further perimeter breaches’ an approach lacking emotive, informed or authentic language. This exists in stark juxtaposition to Aziz, who displays an ethos and translucency unattainable to those who have not witnessed the atrocities of the immigration controls. You cannot help but feel overwhelmed, hearing Aziz’s perspective and knowing that it is this single, vital voice which is the least heard, least comprehended and in many ways, least cared about by those empowered to make tangible change. The feeling of partaking in the telephone calls between Michael and Aziz left me utterly immobilised with sadness, as if we were both attuned to a very desperate, personal plea. A vital conversation that no one else could hear.

Image: The Messenger Podcast (available through Apple Podcasts)

Episode six, ‘Today I’m Really Smiling’ centralises on the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court decision in Namah v Pato, which held that the forced transfer to PNG and detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island defied their Constitution. Following the decision, media coverage promoted the idea that asylum seekers were no longer in detention on these islands, however, Aziz painted a vastly different picture. ‘It is still a detention centre and the rules are still the same’ he states that the security is, ‘always watching’ and upholds the fact that there has been no meaningful or substantive change to the status of detention, despite significant legal transformation. Having only been exposed to the legal perspective of this decision, it appeared to be a ground breaking result which would seek to dismantle Australia’s deterrence paradigm. Instead, The Messenger strategically emphasises the lack of action stemming from the decision, forcing me to confront the divide between judicial process and meaningful change. Aziz also makes significant mention of the death of Hamid Kehazaei, a refugee in detention whose death was the subject of a coronial inquest in Queensland and was deemed to be a preventable death, caused by ‘systemic flaws' Aziz candidly states that his death was the result of a blatant lack of medical treatment, ‘there was no concern for our welfare...it is unsanitised and unhygienic’. In July of 2016, Aziz provided a statement to the Supreme Court as to why he did not seek resettlement in Papua New Guinea. This court process is described by Michael Green as, ‘a microcosm of the detention experience’ due to such lengthy delays and emotional turmoil which is inherently attached to the often complex and delayed court processes. Following the PNG Supreme Court decision in 2016, the Australian High Court decision in Plaintiff S195 was of particular significance, upholding the legality of the Australian Government’s designation of PNG as a processing country for asylum seekers, despite the decision in Namah v Pato directly contradicting this belief. In reflecting on the experience communicated through the eyes of Aziz, the Australian government’s self-proclaimed power to organise the prolonged detention of refugees, despite this amounting to a direct violation of PNG law is a tragic and contentious judgement which seeks for control beyond human rights breaches, extending to breach of bi-lateral international agreements. The court upholding the notion that no branch of authority is ‘constitutionally limited by any need to conform to international law’ is a stain on Australia’s judicial system, valuing inhuman immigration control processes over international instruments and commitments. Anchoring Australia’s commitment to misunderstanding, oppressing and ensuring the continued existence of a deterrence paradigm, through the continued suffering of oppressed individuals like Aziz.

As painstaking as it is to hear the results of our legal and political position as a nation, it is a necessary vicarious trauma. To bear witness to Aziz is to admit that we have strayed from our sense of accountability and humanity in allowing atrocities to occur to those seeking safety and protection from our nation. This process is retrospective, and has prompted me to revisit the times I changed the channel because it was too painful to hear politicians talk about their sheer unwillingness to empathise with those on people smuggling vessels and to hear about deaths and protests within these centres, knowing the inquests were unlikely to result in meaningful change. Aziz’s message highlighted for me that my ignorance, quite simply, no longer cuts it. For me, the transparent, unambiguous and uncensored dialogue forged by both Michael and Aziz was the authentic message that subverted my experience. It dominated my longstanding beliefs and challenged everything I knew about resilience, activism and grief. It allowed me to remodel my view of a political system driven by ‘othering’ refugees and asylum seekers through isolation and suffering. It reinvigorated the notion I always intended to live by, but clearly have fallen short of, that in a position of privilege we should cast our political allegiances not for our own needs, but from the perspective of those with less than ourselves. Oscillating between sadness for the continuing degradation of human rights through current policy and feelings of fulfilment at the prospect of Aziz’s safe re-settlement, The Messenger conveys a lasting message: Aziz’s testimony is formidable, challenging and transforming the way ambivalent individuals perceive asylum seekers. It is clear that Australia’s political landscape would want to censor stories this powerful, it makes sense that they would seek to silence the Messenger.

There is something clinical and imperceptible in attempting to gain historical and personal insight through piles of legal documentation and PowerPoint slides exclusively. No matter how much effort is committed to understanding a judicial decision, legislative amendment or historical event, at some point we as an audience depart from the possibility of true understanding and instead perceive only the bare skeleton of experience and impact. Engaging with a work like ‘The Messenger’ resuscitates this capacity, allowing us to gain a more panoramic perspective of the stories and lives that exist behind legal and political structures and decisions. Through subversive mediums and authentic works, we as witnesses gain the ability to stand in the lived experiences of those testifying, and to see the consequences of both historical and current processes and decisions made by those we elect into positions of domestic and international power and responsibility.