An Iranian refugee’s lived experience of Australia’s brutal mandatory offshore detention laws

The story of Leila Beigli is as heartbreaking as it is powerful. An Iranian refugee who fled oppression, Leila and her 9-year-old son thought they had left the worst behind when they arrived at Christmas Island in 2013. But what followed was an unimaginable ordeal as they were forced into the detention centre on Nauru.

“When we arrived at Christmas Island, we had no idea we would be taken to Nauru,” says Leila. Their stay at Christmas Island was brief, just 3 days, after which they were transferred from the island. A sudden policy change had made Nauru their unintended destination. Leila recalls the gut-wrenching moment, “We had no choice but to go because the police were with the immigration officers.”

Leila explains that the refugees taken to Nauru were promised their applications for refugee status would be fast-tracked once they arrived in Nauru. Sadly, this promise proved to be false.

This sudden shift to Nauru, an isolated island in Micronesia, occurred amidst significant immigration policy changes in Australia. The Australian Government’s policies on people arriving by boat, including mandatory detention and offshore processing, have sparked controversy and been the subject of international scrutiny and intense debate. On 19 July 2013, under the Operation Sovereign Borders policy, the government intensified efforts to deter people arriving by boat, prioritising offshore processing and removing regional resettlement as a pathway to being granted asylum in Australia. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 3,127 refugees arrived in Australia by boat on or after 19 July 2013. These people were sent to Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Under the policies in place at that time, and at the time of writing, these people will never be allowed to resettle in Australia.

The conditions in Nauru were, by all accounts, inhumane. Leila paints a bleak picture of her days there, dominated by endless queues for necessities, from food to medication. “We were in a line all day,” she describes. Shelter, if it can be called that, was a mere plastic tent, unbearable in the extreme heat of Nauru. “It was too hot to stay in a plastic tent in that heat. It was really hard. Also, there is no safety there,” she states. The situation turned from bad to worse when the rains came, with flooding reaching their knees, rendering their tents uninhabitable. “It was like being in war,” Leila remembers.

Nauru offshore detention facility (AAP image/The Department of Immigration and Citizenship)

The physical toll was enormous. “The weather was so bad. It was so hot. It was like being in a prison in an unbearably hot land,” Leila describes. But the physical hardships were only part of the torment. The emotional and psychological impact was immense. “They always referred to us as numbers, like we were animals,” Leila shares.

Leila’s sentiments mirror the reports of many human rights groups who have consistently raised concerns about the conditions in Nauru, and the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of refugees there.

After 13 long months in Nauru, Leila and her son were transferred to the Villawood Detention Centre near Sydney so her son could receive medical treatment. Then in 2017, while in community detention, Leila connected with a community welcome centre for refugees. It was here, amidst art supplies and encouraging facilitators, that Leila’s artistic spark was kindled. “Art makes me relax and not think about the situation I am in. It gives me the feeling of unlimited freedom,” she expresses.

Leila’s art soon gained recognition. Her powerful painting Offshore was born out of her harrowing experiences. The portrait of her son, overlayed with images representing their ordeal at Nauru, earned a coveted spot in the Gosford Regional Art Gallery, and won an art prize. “It’s my story in that painting,” Leila says.

Leila Beigli's award winning portrait of her son
Leila Beigli’s award winning portrait of her son

Leila’s story is not just about displacement and survival. It’s also about separation. Leila speaks of her daughter, still in Iran, “I haven’t seen her, or the rest of my family, in 10 years.” A subsequent painting of Leila’s is a portrait of her daughter, symbolising her daughter’s longing for freedom and reflecting Leila’s own desires.

Leila Beigli standing alongside the portrait of her daughter that she painted
Leila Beigli with her painting of her daughter

In March 2023, almost 10 years after they arrived in Australia, Leila and her son were finally granted a temporary visa and they were released from community detention. But their struggles were far from over. Neither Leila nor her teenage son can study due to their visa restrictions. The uncertainty of their future remains a constant shadow, “I don’t know what I’ll do in the future. I have no future that I can plan for. There is no chance of me being able to stay in Australia. I don’t know when I’ll be leaving, and I don’t know where I’ll be going. After 10 years I am still in limbo”, Leila laments.

As of 31 August 2023, Leila is among the 631 refugees who were subjected to mandatory offshore detention and still remain uncertain about their future. Without urgent and comprehensive reforms to Australia’s immigration policies, particularly an end to mandatory offshore detention and the use of bridging visas, Leila will never call Australia – the place she sought sanctuary in over a decade ago – home.

Leila Beigli’s experience as a refugee is a heartbreaking reminder of the immense human costs of Australia’s harsh immigration policies.  Behind every policy, statistic, and debate, there are individuals with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Individuals like Leila with immense potential to contribute to Australian society, if only given the chance.

As global citizens, we must rally behind stories like Leila’s, pushing for more inclusive, humane, and compassionate immigration reforms. We can write to our local government representatives asking them to end mandatory detention & end temporary bridging visas. To find your local Member of Parliament (MP), enter your postcode in the ‘search member’ box on this page.

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