The images bound in hardcover and published online capture the suffering of refugees in Australian offshore detention centers, though none were taken with cameras.
Instead, artificial intelligence was used to build images from statements filed for a now-abandoned court case, edited by a designer working with refugees to refine the details.
The result is the closest rendition to date of memories etched in the minds of people who arrived in Australian waters by boat and were detained by Australia on remote islands under deals struck with foreign governments to process their immigration claims.
From 2012, hundreds of asylum seekers were sent to the remote Pacific island of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, with some waiting years for their asylum claims to be processed.
Guarded detention centers on the islands were eventually closed, but many refugees remained on the islands, unable to leave unless they agreed to be repatriated to the countries they had fled. The numbers fell as some were resettled in other countries, were sent home, or evacuated to Australia for medical treatment. Some died.
On Saturday, the last remaining refugee on Nauru was transferred to Australia, according to advocates at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), who are calling for the same to happen for more than 80 men still in PNG.
Australia no longer has a deal with PNG but maintains a processing agreement with Nauru, which means more asylum seekers could be sent there – if needed.
“As long as Nauru remains ‘open’ and refugees remain in limbo in PNG, the dark chapter of offshore detention will not be finally closed,” Ian Rintoul from advocate group Refugee Action Coalition said in a statement.
Challenge to immigration policy
Images in the book and online project, titled “Exhibit A-I,” were compiled by Australian lawyers who planned to challenge the Australian government over its immigration policy, but the case was abandoned before it reached court.
By sharing their memories, the refugees who took part hoped to remind society of the human cost of immigration policies they say punished them for seeking safety.
They’re speaking out as other countries consider their response to record numbers of people fleeing their homes due to conflict, persecution and violence. For some, Australia’s approach has been seen as a model, particularly in the United Kingdom, which wants to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Saman, a 37-year-old Iranian refugee who spent nine months on Manus Island, said he doesn’t want to see it happen elsewhere.
“I’m never going to bring back the good years of my life. It’s gone,” said Saman, who asked to use an alias for privacy as he rebuilds his life. “But I don’t wish that upon another human being.”
In July 2013, Australia began telling those determined to be refugees who arrived by boat that they’d never settle in the country. Instead they would be resettled on Nauru, PNG or any third country that would take them, including the United States. More recently some have been sent to New Zealand.
The no-settlement policy didn’t apply to Saman, who had been sent to Manus Island months earlier after taking a boat from Indonesia to Australian waters in 2012.
When he arrived, there were fewer than 300 asylum seekers on the island, according to government figures. But by the time he left in November 2013, the number had nearly quadrupled to 1,139 and peaked at 1,353 in January 2014.
Similar numbers were held on Nauru, where the refugee population hit a high of 1,233 in August 2014 – the last year asylum seekers were sent to either island.
Many remained on the islands for years.
Successive Australian governments have repeatedly defended the policy as necessary to deter traffickers who exploit desperate asylum seekers with promises of freedom for the cost of a boat trip. They claim it saves lives that otherwise may be lost at sea.
For years, the United Nations and human rights groups criticized the policy as “punitive” and a breach of Australia’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Recounting past trauma
The origins of “Exhibit A-I” date back to 2020 when lawyers at Maurice Blackburn, which specializes in class action suits, called for applicants to join a case against the Australian government over its offshore immigration policy.
Fifty people came forward and legal staff spent more than 300 hours recording their accounts of life inside the camps, the law firm said.
“One of the things we were really struck with was the everyday indignities – having a mattress on the floor because beds were seen as something that might become a weapon,” Jennifer Kanis, principal lawyer for Maurice Blackburn, told CNN.
“Not having enough toilets, then asking for cleaning things, so they could clean their toilets and being told you can’t have cleaning products because you might harm yourself. The lack of privacy in the showers, the tents leaking,” she added.
Lawyers compiling the accounts planned to use them in court to argue that Australia was detaining asylum seekers for far longer than it should reasonably take to process their visa applications, and that indefinite detention was unlawful.
But the same time the class action was making its way through the courts, a separate case run by another law firm based on similar arguments advanced to the High Court, which ruled in 2021 that indefinite immigration detention is lawful.
The class action fell apart.
“Usually what will happen is, you discontinue a case and you’d archive the file. And it sits there in our archives for seven years and then gets thrown away,” said Kanis.
“We really didn’t want to do that in this matter. We didn’t feel that that did justice to the people we’d been working with.”