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Living between the devil and the deep blue sea

By Shira Sebban - posted Thursday, 21 February 2013

I cannot forget Chaman's eyes. Filled with tears, they bore into my soul as he makes his plea:

"People who are really refugees are people who have terrible troubles. Please do something for them. They are people like me. If my life weren't in danger, if my family had not been killed, I would never take the risk to come here… I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted to be a refugee. But it's just because I have no one left."

It is too late to help Chaman himself. This young and handsome Afghan disappeared while en route to Australia by boat in October 2009. The boat was never found.


Nor was that fateful trip the first time he had tried to reach Australia. Previously, he had spent more than three weeks to get as far as Ashmore Reef, only for that boat to be turned back and forced to return to Indonesia. Hamid Karzai had recently become President of Afghanistan, and believing life would now be more peaceful, Chaman had agreed to return home, only for the Taliban to take away his family's land, destroy their wealth and kill his parents and brothers.

Some would argue that he should never have got on any boat in the first place and that if asylum seekers persist in endangering their lives in that way, then it is our Government's role to deter, if not prevent them from doing so by whatever means it can. But Chaman would say that he had no choice.

His tragic story is one of many recounted by asylum seekers themselves in Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (, an award-winning, powerful and moving documentary conceived by Melbourne barrister and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor. In mid-2009, together with interpreter Ali Reza Sadiqi, she interviewed about 250 asylum seekers, including around 120 children and unaccompanied minors, often living in squalid conditions in jails, detention centres and hostels across Indonesia, their words and images captured by a camera on occasion illegally smuggled into prison under Taylor's headscarf.

Currently touring Australia on a road trip funded by donations, the documentary, which was produced by Taylor and filmmakers David Schmidt and Chris Kamen, will be officially screened for politicians in Parliament House in Canberra on March 18. "Come watch the film that Tony and Julia don't want you to see," the publicity urges. As Taylor explains, "the more people talk about the human beings behind this issue, the less likely it is that politicians can ignore them".

Accompanied by my children, I attended a local screening, which took place in their school hall in Sydney. By the end of the film, some of the young high school students were in tears, overcome by the images of individuals, groups of friends, or families with children, some holding asylum seeker certificates and gazing unflinchingly at the camera. We have come to know many of them during the documentary as they told their stories. Now we learn their fate as each image is stamped "drowned at sea", "missing", "in detention" or "living in Australia". Entire families lost, saved, or tragically torn apart.

Throughout the film, Taylor stresses that the people she interviewed had patiently tried to wait their turn, or as she puts it, "to stand in the queue". As she says, "they saw Indonesia as the doorstep to Australia, not so they could kick down the door, but so they could knock and wait to be let in". In other words, they had sought registration, interview and processing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an effort to attain refugee status and hopefully be recommended for resettlement in Australia.


The problem according to Taylor is that by 2009, the process was simply not working: "People were being resettled in Australia at a rate of between 35 and 50 people a year. The number of asylum seekers waiting for resettlement was 2500 and rising. A quick juggle of the numbers revealed that people could be waiting between 40 and 60 years for resettlement in Australia. They could be waiting a lifetime."

Obviously, some four years later, the numbers are even higher, with more than 6700 asylum seekers and over 1800 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Jakarta as of the end of January 2013 ( Without the necessary legislation and procedures in place to protect refugees, South East Asian countries like Indonesia are dependent on the UNHCR and non-government bodies such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide assistance, partly funded by the Australian Government. Yet, as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea clearly shows, the hope of many applicants is often extinguished by the sheer chaos and squalor of the conditions within which they face a seemingly interminable wait.

In the search for a better life, some, like Chaman, are desperate enough to risk the ultimate gamble, in their need to flee war, persecution or terror. A middle-aged man tells the interviewer, as his wife sobs in the background: "I would choose to die in pursuit of freedom rather than return to die at the hands of my oppressors."

Others are motivated by a craving to belong. As one young man in the film explains: "I am 24 years old. I've never had a country. I just want to have a country. If I find a country, I will give my soul for that country."

I urge you to see this film, listen to the voices and their stories, and make up your own mind. It certainly taught my own children a hard lesson: Life is a lottery, especially for a refugee on the run, who truly lives "between the devil and the deep blue sea".

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About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.

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