Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

The torture of Australia’s offshore immigration detention system

A new documentary by a former detainee explores how Australia has been treating people seeking asylum in its Nauru offshore detention facility

Elahe Zivardar Omid Tofighian
16 March 2021, 11.15am
Image provided by author. Creative Commons (by-nc)

I am often asked what it was like being locked up in an Australian-run detention centre in the Republic of Nauru for six years. I wonder if I can provide an answer to this question now, sitting in my home in Los Angeles over a year after being transferred as part of the Australia-United States resettlement agreement. I was traded by the Australian government after six years of incarceration. Who was I traded with? What was I traded for?

My name is Elahe Zivardar, also known as Ellie Shakiba. I honestly do not know how to introduce myself. I have been through a serious identity crisis and I am not sure who I am anymore. I am an Iranian woman; an engineering and architecture university graduate; an artist and journalist. Then I was reduced to nothing but a number: IVL-057.

It has been really challenging for me to remember the person I was before I was displaced and exiled. It is difficult to overcome the idea that being a refugee is not what defines me. To help explain what happened to me in those years, to share my story with you, I am creating a documentary called Searching for Aramsayesh Gah – a Farsi term which may be translated as Abode for Serenity.

Searching for Aramsayesh Gah exposes the architecture of torture, trauma, and healing through the legacy of Australia’s infamous refugee detention centre in the Republic of Nauru. It is a production of This Machine Media and I am co-creator and executive producer on the project. Please help us to inform Australians and the world of this terrible chapter in Australia’s migration history and to push for systemic change by donating to our crowdfunder.

This documentary draws from the biggest video archive of stories by refugees incarcerated in the Nauru detention centre. I recorded the footage during my imprisonment and in collaboration and consultation with the people and families involved – my friends and fellow detainees. In the documentary I present and explore my claim that every single element in the centre was designed to torture the inmates, people who had already experienced horrific trauma in their home countries.

I started sketching the architecture of Australia’s detention facilitates during my first day in the Christmas Island facility, where I was taken prior to being exiled to Nauru. I did this to eventually create a 3D model of the site – a forensic architecture initiative – but my original plan has now expanded into multidimensional art projects. These initiatives are the outcome of six years of hard work: resistance, research, filming and interviewing exiled people in prison with me. Every step of the way was very dangerous, but I believe that having these projects as a goal made me strong enough to tolerate that terrible situation for six years.

What happened?

In order to answer the many different questions I am asked about life and death in Nauru I have to reflect on both space and time. I have to consider the impact of imprisonment on my body, my thoughts and my emotions.

I feel extremely thirsty. I am thirsty for a drop of hope, thirsty for a spark of light in desperation. I feel like that. Upside down. Hanging from my feet in absolute darkness, I am a pendulum, swinging from one misery to the next. Over days, weeks, months and years. All directions lead you to non-being, to nothingness. No matter how strong or confident you are, you are made worthless upon your first encounter with this space. The idea, the concept and every single element within OPC3 (a compound within the Nauru detention facility) is cruelly designed to torture detainees physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The architecture of evil.

Many respond in distressing ways when they hear my answers ‒ they too embody and embolden the prison and the border. A white audience member at the opening of my first art exhibition in Los Angeles asked me, ‘Are you saying children were being tortured because they didn’t have a school? Didn’t Australia feed you there? Do you understand what torture means?’ He was obviously hurt by seeing evidence of the harsh cruelty inflicted by a first world country, Australia. Who am I to render that critique? IVL-57? A miserable, ungrateful woman from the Middle East who doesn’t appreciate her jailer?

Prisons are all the same. They are all bad places, built for punishment. But this one was unique. The process of torturing people seeking asylum would start even before we were sent to Nauru, while we were still in the facility on Christmas Island. They planted in us the seeds of horror and fear and threatened us in daily group meetings, notifying us that we would be transferred to a horrible prison in a very tiny, scorching hot island. We were told that we will never come to Australia. Or, they would say: “You can choose to go back to your country.”

These seeds of terror grew into an all-encompassing, never-ending nightmare. One night, some people suddenly went missing at midnight in Christmas Island. They were kidnapped by Australian authorities and taken to a place they called “Hell in Nauru”.

What do you call a system that makes people hate themselves to the extent that they forego their feelings of compassion and positivity?

Around 20,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat in 2013. Almost 5,000 of them arrived after 19 July 2013, the day the government announced that henceforth no refugee arriving by boat would be settled in Australia. About 2,500 people were randomly chosen to be exiled to Nauru (for women, unaccompanied minors and families) and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (men travelling alone). They were banished to prisons constructed by Australia in those places.

Australian immigration had a system that was oblivious to people’s needs. They incited aggression, drove people to self-harm, and told many lies to manipulate people. They tried to erode kindness, positivity, health and honesty. The 2,500 chosen victims were quiet, honest, positive and cooperative people. They were selected with no regard for their age, gender or their underlying health conditions. They were exiled and incarcerated in a site that represented the opposite of everything they stood for.

Why me?

This was the first question everyone held in Nauru asked themselves. Why me? My friend Parry once told me, “We were 60 people in the boat that arrived at Christmas Island on the eighth of August, 2013. Only 10 of us were exiled to Nauru, three single men to Manus, and the rest of the people in that boat were kept in Australian onshore detention centres before receiving visas after a year and a half and moved into the Australian community. This is so unfair.”

This two-word question, ‘Why me?’, launched me on a path towards a serious identity crisis. This was just the beginning of a bleak and tragic experience, and I was headed towards a profound breakdown.

Every time I visited or interviewed people who were suffering from debilitating mental health problems I got the impression that they were punishing themselves. Through self-harm, attempted suicide, hunger strikes, or any other possible way to hurt themselves, they were taking revenge on themselves. They finally understood how the system worked, why they were taken to Nauru, why they were trapped there. After those asylum seekers who remained on Christmas Island were given visas, the others who were sent to offshore processing centres felt foolish and naïve. They saw no value in remaining peaceful, positive and cooperative. They saw no reason to look after themselves.

The Australian Department of Home Affairs gives their citizens the impression that people seeking asylum will cause trouble for them, when in reality it is the government that does everything in its power to incite violence. This violence is inflicted on the refugees, on their bodies and souls. Border violence also harms the Australian people; the lies, corruption and damage to vulnerable refugees also inflicts violence indirectly on Australians. The system is indiscriminate – it does not matter if people have diabetes, are pregnant, or even have cancer. What do you call a system that makes people hate themselves to the extent that they forego their feelings of compassion and positivity?

Unfortunately what the Australian government has done to us has become an example to other countries. Right wing conservatives in Europe and the UK have looked to Australia as a model, and President Trump praised Australia’s policies as a great success and as an example of effective border protection policies. This influence is inspiring and it facilitates crimes against humanity on a global scale.

Searching for Aramsayesh Gah and other projects are a great opportunity for me to talk to the Australian people and empower refugees who have been held in Nauru and Manus Island. The Australian government has continuously accused us of being dangerous, dishonest, and a drain on the system, amongst other things. Australian politicians like Peter Dutton, the minister for home affairs, and Scott Morrison, the current prime minister, have manipulated the Australian people and used us as political pawns for their own agenda. They have been engaged in a war on refugees to further their own political aims. Stand with me as we fight back.

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