New Canadian documentary shares a journey faced by more immigrants each year, in which they flee persecution at home only to escape to a world unequipped — or unwilling — to care for them
By Cory Schachtel | February 16, 2023
Globally, the number of people forced to flee their homes has increased in each of the last 10 years, according to the UN Refugee Agency. With over 100 million people forcibly displaced as of May 2022 (up from 89.3 million at the end of 2021), the number is at its highest since records began. Between climate change and war, these numbers will likely increase for the foreseeable future, with more people than ever before seeking refuge in the West, including Canada.
A new TELUS original documentary, Finding Freedom, focuses on four individuals, all of whom fled Iran for what they think, who they are, and to protect their families. Through smugglers, they escaped for Australia — a harrowing journey in itself — only to be transferred to detention centres in Manus island (for men), which is part of Papua New Guinea, and Nauru (for women and children), a minuscule island over 2,200 kilometres east.
Even the disheartening term “detention centre” doesn’t convey the brutal living conditions in the centre — funded by Australia’s government and operated by Manu and Nauru’s — where over a thousand innocent people lived in sweltering tents, ate awful food and exchanged cigarettes like currency. One of the film’s subjects, Amir, amassed enough of a tobacco fortune to smuggle a cellphone in to get his story out, in addition to taking part in demonstrations and hunger strikes that received outside media attention. His trouble-making ways (from the guards’ perspectives) are part of the reason he only spent four years in detention. Two of the other subjects spent between seven and nine years respectively.
Amir’s story made international headlines, some of which director Alan Goldman and producer Mel D’Souza saw. As documentarians who seek out Canadian stories with international appeal, they were intrigued by the young, articulate man’s experience. But once he shared more details, they were appalled.
“I think the moment that hit us both was when we were just having a coffee with Amir, when we first met him. He said they were referred to as numbers, because he was given a number based on the number on the bow of the boat he arrived on. I grew up learning about the Holocaust, and the idea of being referred to as numbers made me think of concentration camps. We were just mortified, and felt we had to let the world know this was happening in a so-called civilized country,” Goldman says.
After international outcry — and in part to hide evidence of the living conditions — the Manus camps were shut down and bulldozed in 2019 (the Nauru camps still operate). And while the film’s four subjects found physical freedom — Amir and Amin in Vancouver, Ali and Negar in Norway and Virginia, respectively — they still feel mentally confined. “Our four characters ended up in places they never imagined they’d be in when they left their countries to seek sanctuary in Australia,” D’Souza says. “So, they’re free, but each one of them told us that, you know, I may be free, physically, but I’m still trapped in my mind through what we’ve gone through. A lot of them have been going through various levels of trauma.”
For some refugees — especially those not fortunate enough to be privately sponsored, as three of the film’s subjects were — arriving in Canada doesn’t end their trauma, and some end up in literal jails. In July 2022, the British Columbia government changed its policy of placing immigrants in provincial prisons, making it the first Canadian province to do so.
Alberta — where between April and October 2022 an average of 15 people per day were held in prison while waiting for their immigration paperwork to be processed — has given the federal government until the end of June 2023 to end its agreement with Canada Border Services Agency, which includes housing immigrant detainees in provincial correctional centres. (Alberta also reached a record number of international immigrants in the third quarter of 2022, in line with global trends.)
So while the film uplifts, it also warns that things are far from perfect in Canada, and can easily backslide. “People are more on the move than they’ve ever been,” D’Souza says. “That has a lot to do with climate change, which will only get worse. But even a place like England is in the process of starting this offshore detention in Rwanda, just like the centre we feature in the film — they just haven’t managed to get that first plane load off yet. So despite the good Canada is deemed to be doing for refugees, there are problems, and it can very easily turn on a dime to a darker, different outcome for people seeking asylum in Canada.”