Life in Detention Camps: Through the Eyes of Refugee Claimants

Read Time:10 Minute, 33 Second

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Warsan Shire 

Warsan Shire’s poem, Home, runs through my mind as I watch Finding Freedom, a documentary featuring the lives of four young persons who fled their homes, seeking refuge in Australia nearly a decade ago.   

Australian Government’s Policy Dashes Hope of Refugees 

In 2013, the Australian government shunted irregular maritime asylum seekers to offshore detention centres in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru. “Since July 19, 2013, the Australian Government’s policy is that no one in this group will ever be resettled in Australia, even if they are refugees”, states the Refugee Council of Australia. While the women and children were sent to Nauru, the men ended up in Manus and remained separated from their families for years.  

Australia bore all related costs, although the detention centres were not on Australian soil. The 2014 National Commission Audit places the cost of maintaining a single asylum seeker at these detention centres at AUD 400,000 annually. 

“Though Australia paid PNG and Nauru to house these asylum seekers, by not detaining them on Australian soil, they removed themselves from the responsibility of granting them Australian citizenship”, says Alan Goldman, Director, Finding Freedom. 

Asylum seekers could either become PNG citizens or be shipped back to where they come from, says Goldman. Naturally, they opt to stay in the detention centres hoping for positive outcomes from their refugee claims. 

Finding Freedom 

Mel D’Souza, Producer of Finding Freedom, began exploring the possibility of a documentary after he heard Amir recount his story on CBC in 2017. Together with Goldman, they tracked Amir down. Though the initial plan was to document only his experience, following two and a half years of research, they realized that bringing diverse perspectives would add value to the story. They contacted several of those from the Manus and Nauru groups to ensure gender and ethnic balance. Only the four featured in the documentary, who all happen to be Iranian by birth, were willing to share their stories.  

The four individuals featured in the documentary speak of the deprivations and pain they lived through in detention centres. The trauma remains even though their days in detention centres are now over. As Negar, currently resettled in the USA, describes it, after years of having decisions made for her, the freedom to make her own choices can sometimes be challenging. While many in the outside world knew little about asylum seekers’ treatment at the offshore detention centres, Negar kept a diary to stay focused. 

As an immigration detainee, she was assigned a number and was no longer referred to by name. On day 2314 in confinement, she writes in her diary, “Dear Prison Officer, when is your inspection going to end?” Even when evacuated to Brisbane or Melbourne for medical reasons, Negar says she was held in a hotel without the freedom to open a window.

Ali spent his time in detention drawing cartoons that chronicled his life as a refugee. His signature cartoons, Eaten Fish, which he smuggled out of the detention centre, won him support from cartoonists worldwide.  

Amir left Iran as a teenager and spent five years in Malaysia, attempting to travel to Australia through legal means. When those efforts failed, he opted to go by boat. D’Souza says most human smugglers use the route through Indonesia. The boat ride is dangerous, and people fleeing whatever form of persecution “spend lots of money and give up their liberties to get to Australia.” 

Independent investigators have echoed the allegations made by detainees. A report released by Amnesty International following a visit to the Manus Island detention centre in 2013 describes the conditions as “tantamount to torture.”  

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared the Manus Island detention centre unlawful and ordered it shut down. But that didn’t happen right away. While both centres are now closed, the Australian Refugee Council states that those still awaiting resettlement live in the Naurun community or Port Moresby in PNG. Others have resettled in New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Norway. 

While some, like Negar, struggle to settle down, others, like Ali and Amir, have handled the transition well. 

In the documentary, Amir describes how he approached his new life in Canada with trepidation. He recalls he was sceptical as the doors of the aeroplane opened. He wondered, would his papers be accepted, or would he be sent back to PNG? Later in the documentary, we see a confident Amir back at the airport with a group of private sponsors welcoming yet another batch from Australia’s detention centres, telling them, “this is home now.” 

Finding Freedom premiered on Telus Optik on February 14, 2023.  The documentary will be released in 194 countries by WaterBear from March 2023. Goldman and D’Souza hope Finding Freedom will bring to Canadians and global audiences the realities of the world of a refugee.  

Though Finding Freedom highlights the many human rights cases of abuse asylum seekers face and their subsequent experiences in their adopted countries, the documentary is more about humanizing these refugees and showcasing the work carried out by so many civilians and organizations such as MOSAIC, the Australian Refugee Council and the UNHCR, says Goldman.

MOSAIC’s Role in Resettling Refugees 

While Finding Freedom features those resettled in countries other than Canada, Operation Not Forgotten (ONF) utilizes Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program for Australia’s detainees with no other durable solution. 

MOSAIC partnered with Refugee Council of Australia to develop ONF in 2019 as a community-led response to provide private sponsorship to Canada for refugees caught in Australia’s offshore processing regime and stuck in Papua New Guinea, Nauru or in detention in Australia with no viable resettlement options. 

In describing ONF, MOSAIC states, “most refugees are from Iran, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq. They were fleeing war, violence, and political or ethnic prosecution. We want to show them and the world that they are NOT forgotten. They deserve a future.” 

Iris Challoner, Manager of the Refugee Sponsorship Program at MOSAIC, says that the Agency signed the Sponsorship Agreement Holder (HAS) with the government of Canada in 2017, after which they sponsored persons from Eritrea, Congo and Libya. She says, “MOSAIC focuses on one project at a time and where there is a need. As ONF ends, the priority now is to sponsor Afghan refugees”. 

The private sponsorship program requires the family or sponsoring group to raise adequate funds to support the newcomer’s needs for at least one year. On average, supporting a single person for one year, including start-up expenses, is around $ 18,000 to $ 19,000. In the case of ONF, the Refugee Council of Australia raised over AUD 4 million to help with resettlement. 


Though the sponsorship agreement with the government allows MOSAIC to charge an administration fee from the refugee, MOSAIC chooses not to do so. Instead, they take care of expenses such as staff wages through donations, says Challoner, adding that MOSAIC’s Board and various foundations provide financial support.  

The Canadian government’s contribution is limited to processing applications, meeting the cost of the Interim Federal Health Certificate (a medical test required before moving to Canada) and providing initial medical coverage upon arrival. 

Even though the government and the UNHCR go through applications carefully, Challoner says, MOSAIC does its due diligence too. The government allocates one slot per person. If there is any issue with the applicant, or they decide to move to a different country, that slot cannot be used to sponsor anyone else, explains Challoner. Therefore, “it is essential that there are no doubts about the applicant’s intention to move to Canada and that there are no inadmissibility issues or other durable solutions available for the refugee we are sponsoring.” MOSAIC also works closely with UNHRC to ensure there are no duplicate applications.  

Through the ONF program, MOSAIC has helped resettle 73 individuals in 2019, 102 in 2020, 127 in 2022 and 211 in 2022. Of the ten who arrived in December 2021, six opted to remain in Vancouver, while the rest moved to other parts of Canada where they were assisted by other settlement teams and Ads Up Canada, (a refugee network of Canadians and Australian expatriates living in Toronto), says Challoner, adding that in Vancouver, MOSAIC staff help the immigrants set up house. 

Even though many continue to deal with the trauma experienced while in detention, they are more than ready to find employment and become productive community members. But it is essential to understand their fears, she points out.  

In one instance, a group that arrived in December had to remain housebound owing to heavy snowfall. Their immediate reaction was that their movements were being curtailed in Canada, just like in the detention centres. 

The December 2021 group has already found employment as long-haul truck drivers, forklift drivers and warehouse workers, etc., and is now ready to pay their house rent, Challoner says.   

These are people who have been separated from their families for well-nigh a decade and need time to get on their feet, so their families can join them, explains Challoner. The time frame of about a year gives them the opportunity to bring their families into a financially stable environment.

Canada’s Private Refugee Sponsorship Program 

Muslim mother in hijab carrying thermos flask along refugee camp with her daughter running around her playfully. Photo credit: Pressmaster on Freepik

Besides the Government-Assisted Refugee program and the Blended Visa Office-Referred program, Canada allows permanent residents and citizens to sponsor refugees under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.  

As outlined by Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), individuals or families recognized as refugees under Canada’s refugee and the humanitarian program could be sponsored privately under three categories. 

  • Groups of Five (G5): Five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents with the financial and settlement capacity to fulfil sponsorship requirements collectively arrange for sponsoring a refugee living abroad to welcome them into their community. 
  • Community Sponsors: Organizations, associations or corporations located in the community where refugees will be resettled, with the financial and settlement capacity to fulfil sponsorship requirements. 
  • Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs): Incorporated organizations that have signed an agreement with IRCC assume overall responsibility for managing sponsorships. SAHs can also authorize Constituent Groups (CGs) from the community to sponsor refugees under their contract.

Looking to the Future 

As the United Kingdom prepares to transfer refugees turning up at her door to Rwanda, in a scenario similar to Australia, one begins to wonder whether countries that sign the United Nations Conventions on Refugees, do so only to look good in the eyes of the world!  The UK, Australia and Canada are amongst the signatories to the convention. 

Despite Canada’s welcoming reputation, refugee claimants are detained, sometimes for lengthy periods. In Canada, apart from detention centres run by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), immigration detainees are sent to provincial jails meant for those serving sentences or awaiting criminal court proceedings. 

Migrant rights activists point out that immigration detainees are not criminals and must be treated differently. The Canadian Red Cross explains that “people detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are not facing criminal charges. They may be refugee claimants, survivors of armed conflict or torture, victims of smuggling and human trafficking, or even children.” 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that “Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for over a year…since 2016”.   

On a positive note, in July 2022, the British Columbia government announced that it would end its contract with CBSA to hold immigration detainees in provincial jails. Several other provincial governments, including Alberta and Nova Scotia, have since followed the move.  

IRCC states 327,000 refugees have made Canada their home since introducing the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in 1979. In the past ten years, more than fifty per cent of the refugees arriving in Canada have come through private sponsorship.  

Wars, ethnic cleansing, regime changes, religious and cultural persecution, and climate change all contribute to population displacement. Even though Canada has a long history of welcoming refugees and migrants, Canada can do better, especially in how immigration detainees are handled. As critics point out, an oversight authority and community-based accommodation rather than incarceration in holding cells would help Canada genuinely live up to her reputation of ‘Welcome to Canada!”

50 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
50 %

About Post Author

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.