I am ashamed to be Australian.

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. 

MANUS, Papua New Guinea — 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.

I thought that Karam Zahirian, an Iranian refugee, was going to break down during our portrait sitting. I had explained that the people who put him through these years of hell would see these images, and that he had a chance to show them what detention had done to him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and then his arms and shoulders started shaking. I gently touched his arm and told it was O.K. to cry. “No,” Mr. Zahirian said. “I’ve got nothing left.”

There are 65 million displaced people on our planet, more than ever before in human history. Short of an ideal world in which wealth is equally distributed and repression is brought to an end, we will always have refugees.

Instead, we must find a humane way to manage the issue. We must accept some responsibility for our planet’s conflicts, and realize that compassionately dealing with the fallout of an unbalanced world is the only way forward.

When I emigrated from Australia to the United States in 2003, it was out of disgust with our refugee policies. I didn’t think it could get worse than it was then. I was wrong.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to I am ashamed to be Australian.

  1. Avatar Frank Carter says:

    Every day I see another cringe-worthy incident from this country. We are once again bullying Indonesia by allowing our servicemen to racially vilify them. This after the Abbott government’s disgusting bugging of President Yudhoyono’s phone.

  2. Avatar Andreas says:

    Thank you Ashley, you’ve put the point across very well. To be ashamed to be Australian apparently has not much value in our current political dilemma, the bastards just don’t care. The country is moving full speed to fascism, halfway there, and the vast majority is asleep…
    That is exactly how Hitler won.
    Please exhibit your work in Europe and US to stop their tourists coming.

  3. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Ashley: Thank-you. A couple of years ago I joined a plan to write letters to those men incarcerated on Manus – organised by a prominent Melbourne advocate for justice – but the the Monster Scott Morrison organised that the mail not be delivered – interference with international mail. I have written on every media forum that gives us a window onto Manus and Nauru. I raise the issue with friends – and in conversations with people I sit alongside on trains or at bus stations – no one has yet mouthed at me the opinions of the current Monster Peter Dutton or his supporter chorus of One Nation. I am prepared to say that the Mandate from Heaven has clearly been forfeited by this current LNP government and that I am prepared to take part in the legitimate overthrow of these criminals – on just about every level of government they have broken their contract to look after the citizens – and the asylum-seekers. They must go. When I read essays such as yours – I find my spirits as an Australian are buoyed afresh! Keep up your shining work – as I will maintain my own part of the accord to prove to the world that we are not all murdering xenophobes!

  4. This is so spot on by someone at the coalface – I have always despised certain countries and their political systems because they imprison people without charge or trial. Now my own country is doing it. I am with you Ashley Gilbertson – I am so ashamed.

  5. Avatar Frank Carter says:

    Thank you Ashley. Well expressed. Like you I’m ashamed to be Australian. I’d like to migrate to a more liberal country like USA or Venezuela which have never been racist as Australia is (and has always been). Unfortunately I’m now too old. My conscience hurts that I didn’t emigrate as a younger man as you have done.

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