Ten years ago, Sonia*, her husband and their six-month-old son fled their home country of Iran by boat due to fears for their safety.
After arriving in Australia, a place they saw as a refuge, they were detained for nearly nine months in the regional processing centre on Nauru.
Sonia recalls living in a mould-ridden tent that was often invaded by cockroaches. The shower and toilet facilities were filthy.
Although Sonia was given access to a fridge and microwave to prepare food for her baby, they were often broken. There was a sink for her to bathe her baby, but it only had cold water.
Sonia’s experience is just one of the many stories Maurice Blackburn collected as part of its work on a class action that explored the legality of offshore detention.
The firm spent over 300 hours gathering testimony from people who had been detained on Manus Island and Nauru and filed 59 witness statements with the Court.
The more we delved, the more we uncovered the unimaginable inhumanity experienced by people in Australia’s offshore detention system.
The witness statements describe the horror of life in detention, including physical and sexual violence, racism, discrimination and self-harm.
However, what also struck us in taking these statements were the daily indignities that people were forced to endure on Manus and Nauru.
These indignities included dirty facilities, a lack of privacy and being forced to wait in long lines in the heat for access to food and showers.
When a High Court decision in another case meant ours was no longer viable, we, unfortunately, had to discontinue our matter.
But almost all the witnesses urged us to find another way for their testimonies to be shared.
They said that telling their stories helped them process the trauma of their experience – which is an important example of restorative justice.
We agreed that leaving the statements dormant and silent in our archive did not do justice to those who had the courage to tell us their stories.
Through our Exhibit A-i project, we have published 32 of these statements.
This is one of the largest collections of evidence regarding the day-to-day life and experiences of people living on both Manus Island and Nauru.
This project uses AI image technology to bring alive the written statements of those who were in offshore detention.
The statements and the accompanying AI images attempt to make the invisible seen so that no one can say they didn’t know what happened.
The Exhibit A-i project bears witness to what occurred within Australia’s offshore processing system. But we also want it to be part of a national reckoning.
While we cannot erase the stories contained within these witness statements, we can ensure they never happen again.
Our nation’s leaders can do this by undertaking reform to end offshore detention for people seeking asylum.
Australia should introduce a National Human Rights Act to create a better system that ensures that such human rights abuses can be identified and acted upon immediately or avoided entirely in the first place.
A redress scheme should be established to compensate those people who have suffered demonstrated physical and psychological injury from their time in offshore detention, such as the harrowing stories of sexual violence detailed in this Exhibit A-I project.
These steps will provide important steps towards justice for survivors of offshore detention while protecting those in future who are seeking Australia’s help to keep themselves and their families safe.
*Sonia is a pseudonym
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