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Behind the Wire – an oral history project documenting the stories of people who have experienced Australian mandatory detention, offering a new perspective through the eyes of lived experience.

Collage of Donna Sherwani and Ali Bakhtiarvandi
Donna Sherwani says ““I almost missed the streets of Kurdistan, running around the rubble. I even missed the ugliness” ; Ali Bakhtiarvandi says “I’m working at the chemical factory in Ballarat. Life in Ballarat, I can say, it’s wonderful.”. Photo courtesy of Emily Bartlett Photography.

What?

Behind the Wire is an oral history project documenting stories of men, womena nd children who have experienced Australian mandatory detention over the past 23 years. It seeks to bring a new perspective on mandatory detention by sharing the reality to the people who have lived it.

Who?

Behind the Wire is interested in working with narrators with a broad range of experiences: different ages, genders, countries of origin, places of detention (both onshore and offshore). and periods when detention occurred (ie from the 1990s through to those currently in detention). If you, or someone you know has experienced mandatory detention and would like to participate in Behind the Wire, please contact us at contact@behindthewire.org.au.

Why?

Through the stories, a nuanced picture of seeking asylum and life in mandatory detention is revealed, showing a reality beyond queue jumpers on the one hand and passive victims on the other, to reveal resilient, suffering human beings. We also seek to place the voices, faces and perspectives of asylum seekers, which are rarely represented in public debates on refugee issues, at the centre of the discussion. Most importantly, the oral history approach is designed to give narrators as much control as possible over every aspect of the process – rather than speaking for asylum seekers and refugees, we hope to amplify their voices.

How?

In-depth interviews are conducted with current and ex-detainees to record narrators’ histories, experiences of seeking protection in Australia and the detailed reality of mandatory detention. Working with narrators, interviews are edited into first person narratives that take the form of literary short stories. Portraits of the narrators are taken (if they choose to do so) and may also adapt their stories into audio or video formats.

The focus is on honouring each narrator and their story. Interviews are conducted according to a strong and transparent ethical framework, and narrators participate through a desire to tell their story and with informed consent. Any legal or safety concerns are discussed and assessed prior to any interview taking place.

Interviews are an ongoing process – rather than meeting someone just once and “extracting” their story, multiple follow-up interviews are held wherever possible. A  relationship of trust with narrators are built  to include narrators’ friends, advocates, and support network in the project process.

Narrators have measures to protect their identity, and have the final say over whether and when to publish their story. These measures include:

  • Using a pseudonym even when narrators are speaking with us;
  • Choosing not to reveal any information about the narrator’s reasons for fleeing their home country, or other information that could impact their refugee claim;
  • Removing or changing identifying details in a narrator’s story;
  • Speaking to us now, but archiving the story until the narrator has permanent residency or citizenship;
  • Final approval on the inclusion of any details in the published story.

Support:

  • A US-based oral history publisher, Voice of Witness advises Behind the Wire
  • Organisational support is received from Right Now, a volunteer, not-for-profit media organisation focused on human rights issues in Australia.
  • The project is largely volunteer run, with some grant funding and some income from payment for publication.

Successes

Several stories have been published on the website, and re-published by media outlets. Behind the Wire is working with:

  • Commercial publishers on a collection of stories for a book and audio book, to be released in March 2017;
  • The Immigration Museum in Victoria on an exhibition based on the stories, scheduled to open in 2017

Challenges

The main challenge we’ve faced is time. Establishing a project such as this requires slow and careful consideration and preparation.

Advice for others  

Come and volunteer with us! If you are considering starting a storytelling project, it’s really important to develop a strong ethical framework that empowers narrators

For more information, please contact:
Ph: 0400 606 399 (Michael Green)

The stories collected through Behind the Wire are published online and in print, and republished by other outlets.