Katie DeRosa’s Travers Reflection

I was standing on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth, looking at a detention centre surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences.

It had all the characteristics of a maximum security prison, but this was a place for refugees and asylum seekers. People fleeing war and persecution in their home country head for Christmas Island’s rocky shores aboard rickety, wooden-hulled boats operated by human smugglers, a journey that costs them thousands of dollars and costs many their lives. It’s here that they will have their first, but not their last, experience in mandatory detention.

In my three months reporting on Australia’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers, I visited three detention centres, spoke to refugees and refugee advocates and lawmakers, trying to understand why the Canadian government would copy Australia’s refugee reforms when by so many accounts they have gone horribly wrong.


After two migrant ships carrying 568 Tamil asylum seekers arrived off Canada’s West Coast in 2009 and 2010, the Conservative government passed Bill C-31, a new anti-human smuggling law that includes mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive in Canada by boat or other “irregular arrivals.” Then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney insisted the new measures would provide a strong deterrent to anyone thinking of paying a human smuggler to cross the Pacific.

But the Australian example has shown mandatory detention has not served as a deterrent. Australia has spent billions of taxpayer dollars keeping refugees locked up in remote detention centres, which critics argue has tarnished the country’s international reputation and caused physical and emotional harm to genuine refugees seeking a better life in a democratic country.

Speaking to refugees who have been held in mandatory detention, I was able to humanize this issue, which is fraught with misconceptions and generalizations. Governments, both in Canada and Australia, tend to characterize mass migration as a threat to national security. Asylum seekers from the Tamil community are painted as possible Tamil Tigers and those coming from Islamic nations are potential terrorists.

But when I met some of these refugees and heard their stories – of having family members killed in their home country and fearing they’d be next – it became clear that they are no threat to national security. Many are highly educated and eager to work in Australia and give back to the community.

Just outside Sydney, I met Murtaza, a Hazara refugee who uses art as a way to ease the psychological trauma of a year in mandatory detention. He’s part of the Refugee Art Project, a non-profit group that donates art supplies to people in detention, giving them an outlet and means of expression.

In Dandedong, outside Melbourne, I discovered a vibrant Afghan community, with thriving local businesses and resourceful entrepreneurs, serving as a great example of how different cultures can integrate without assimilating.

And in Bangkok, I met Chandru, a young Tamil man who had been waiting years to be resettled through the UNHCR process. His mother and sisters had been resettled to Sweden but he couldn’t find a host country because of unfounded suspicions of connections to the Tamil Tigers. Chandru described life in Bangkok as very dangerous, with the possibility of being arrested by Thai authorities for not having proper residency papers. The option is either a hefty bribe or an indefinite stay in a Thai immigration prison, in cells so overcrowded, men cannot sit or lie down at the same time. Chandru said it’s this insecurity in transit countries that pushes asylum seekers to circumvent the official migration channels by paying human smugglers.

Looking at him, I could understand why people would be so desperate as to get on a leaky boat and risk their lives to get to a better country.

These are the faces I remember and the voices that shaped my story. I was moved by their honesty, their candidness and their vulnerability. 

This reporting would not have been possible without the funding from the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship. So often journalists have big ideas about stories they would like to cover, but are limited by shrinking newspaper budgets and dwindling opportunities for long-form, investigative journalism. This fellowship encourages ambitious projects and allows reporters to cover important stories that keep governments and institutions accountable.

The seven-part series, which includes several short documentaries, and was published by the Times Colonist in November 2012, won the 2013 Amnesty International media award in the local news category and was nominated for a 2013 Canadian Hillman prize.



Katie DeRosa is 2012 Recipient

Reflections by other recipients