Using Film to Change Hearts & Minds

Interview Compiled by Madeleine MacMillan-Perich

Communication Intern, International Detention Coalition (IDC)


As part of my internship, I wanted to contribute to our blog series ‘Change Can Happen,' which aims to highlight individuals in the community that are driving positive change and drawing attention to issues surrounding immigration and immigration detention. In my research, I came across a couple of Australia-based filmmakers who have put their skillset to use by making socially conscious, activist and documentary films - Bill Irving and James L Brown.

In particular, Bill and James are co-directors of Watan (2018) - a documentary that aims to subvert rhetoric by conducting interviews with people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis - creating a platform for the voiceless and revealing the often-overlooked human cost of the issue.


Intimate portraits of refugees in the camps and cities of Jordan reveal a very human struggle for normalcy and dignity in a situation that is everything but.”


I was grateful for the opportunity to interview them, and learn more about their craft and passion for social justice:


Tell us a bit about yourselves.

James and I are filmmakers who have known each other since film school in 2004. We work under the moniker Bill and Brown.

Tell us about the projects you have undertaken.

Last year we finished a feature documentary called Watan about Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan. Next month our short ‘The Year is 2020’ will be released.

What compelled you to pursue this project?

James flew to Jordan solo to shoot the interviews and footage that became Watan. He was motivated by a general disgust with the rhetoric in the Australian ‘debate’ about the global refugee crisis. He wanted to see it for himself.

Why have you chosen to draw attention to the issues of migration and the refugee experience as a focus for your work?

I think it’s a recognition of our good fortune and to have the opportunity to elevate the stories of people who do not. I feel a responsibility to do that.

It’s also an anger and frustration that we feel at the state of the refugee ‘debate’ in Australia. To me it’s horrific that there is even debate. It’s an obligation to settle refugees and asylum seekers. It’s a responsibility, demanded by international law.

I want to be proud of my country. Off-shore detention is so shameful. Not to mention illegal. Future generations will look to this period of Australian history and be disgusted. I want to know that we tried to do something about it.

How did this experience alter or shape your perception of the on-going global refugee crisis and the lives of those affected?

I think the most tragic thing is that James was there in 2016. We made the film and finished it in 2017. We were promoting it in 2018. We have lived life. Done things. Travelled. Worked.

Nearly all of the participants in the film are still right where James shot them.

I think that’s the biggest thing. The crushing actual physical reality of long-term internment. People make the best of a situation, of course they do – life finds a way, and that is kinda nice from a story telling perspective, but this is the only life they have. And it is being taken away from them, while the news cycle forgets about them. While we in the West can turn away. Watch something else. Think about something else.

“The public has refugee fatigue” is a phrase we heard a lot while trying to find a platform for Watan.

That is so unfair it makes your heart break.

What do you hope your audience takes away from your work?

We just hoped that people might be able to picture themselves in the shoes of one or more of the people in the film. Empathy changes everything. It breeds compassion. Refugees are not other people. They are people. Like us. Our policies and sense of responsibility should reflect that understanding.


JUST RELEASED: Key Articles By Leading Thinkers

Key Articles By Leading Thinkers

Written by Dr. Robyn Sampson

Senior Advisor, International Detention Coalition (IDC)


There were major milestones in 2018 towards the protection of the rights of refugees and migrants, with the adoption of both the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migrants in December. We are now facing the challenges of negotiating implementation mechanisms, and ensuring the momentum and political will for a more holistic and integrated international approach to human movement is sustained.

To mark the moment, the International Journal of Refugee Law published a special issue on The 2018 Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration in December.

All articles are now free since late May.

The special issue is an important compendium of commentary on these significant developments from some of the key actors and leading thinkers on these issues.

Some highlights include:

For the full Table of Contents and access to all articles, see Volume 30, Issue 4, December 2018 of the International Journal of Refugee Law available here.



How Generosity Could Change Amina’s Life

Written by Seza Kirishdjian

Middle East & North Africa Programme Officer, International Detention Coalition (IDC)


He held baby Amina in his arms, in a firm grip.  Fully aware of the uncertainty of his own future but with the hope that a local family would come forward to care for her, love her and protect her, the way he had cared for her during the past few months. Even though she was not his own child, he had provided her with shelter and protection. In fact, he was just hoping that Amina be treated the way every child in the world should be treated.  All this man was asking for, was that someone would extend a ray of hope to her, one that he no longer had.

Amina’s story was a familiar one to me. Her father had disappeared in his home country, in the Horn of Africa, before her mother took Amina and embarked on their journey to the Middle East.  They risked trafficking and exploitation on their way towards an unknown destination and an insecure future. Amina’s mother had then passed away, leaving little Amina behind with her neighbour in the country that she had been trying to make a new life in.  Although this neighbour was an asylum seeker in an insecure situation himself, he had promised to take care of the young girl. This kind neighbour was the man I was interviewing.

It is in their customs and traditions. Hospitality is a cultural trait they take pride in, they can’t turn this child away. I am sure someone will take care of her.

He uttered these words, with a strong belief in the kindness and generosity of the people in the Middle Eastern country from which he was to be deported for having his asylum claim rejected. Unfortunately, he could not offer little Amina the permanent care and protection that she deserved.

For the past six years, I was interviewing asylum seekers in different countries across the Middle East and North Africa region as part of my work. Each day, a new person or family.  New faces and stories, similar to those of Amina’s. The stories always had a common denominator; separation from loved ones and families left behind in their country of origin. For adults, this proved to be difficult enough, as they struggled to make ends meet in a new country and a challenging environment. Sometimes the symptoms of prolonged exposure to toxic stress were evident. For children in particular, though this high level of insecurity proved to have very detrimental consequences and left them at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse.


Growing up in the Middle East, I have always taken pride in the hospitality and generosity of the people who took my great grandparents in when they were children and forcibly displaced from their homes in Eastern Anatolia at the dawn of the 20th century. It comes to me with no surprise that the same people would continue to open their doors and host vulnerable migrants even though times are difficult for them too.

We are taught from a young age that the real heroes in life are those who take a chance, who dare to be different and produce a change in a system that seems ever so rigid.

The real heroes are those host families and individuals who, despite their own challenges and the increasingly impossible life in recessive economies in the region, are willing to provide alternative care for refugee and migrant children and vulnerable adults.

Community hosting is in no way a new concept to the region. There is enough precedent that it is proving to be a practical and productive alternative to detention, that gives us hope for the future. Just like Amina, most of the children and vulnerable adults on the move whom I interviewed, would sadly never return to their homes.  Very few of them, if any, will ever be lucky enough to be reunited with their families.

It is for this reason that the IDC gives paramount importance to supporting and reporting on alternatives to detention.

The increased phenomenon of community hosting in the MENA region is a ray of hope extended to some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world today.

Stay tuned for more in this series on community hosting in the MENA region, as we begin to collect and share more stories from those in the know, the real heroes, the families who are currently hosting refugee and migrant children and vulnerable adults.

Children Dying in Detention in US & Mexico

Children Dying in Detention in US & Mexico

The deaths of children held in immigration detention were unnecessary and are unjustifiable

On May 17, 2019, IDC members and partners in Mexico gathered outside of the National Palace to demand that the Mexican government immediately end immigration detention of children. The demonstration was in response to the death of a 10-year-old girl from Guatemala who was held in immigration detention in Chihuahua and later transferred with her mother to another detention center in Mexico City.


While this is the first public death of a child in immigration detention in Mexico, in the United States, at least five children and youth have died in immigration detention in just six months: from December 2018 to the most recent death occurring on May 20, 2019.

There is no acceptable reason or justification for these deaths

For years, child development experts have confirmed time and again that detention is extremely harmful to children, regardless of the conditions or length of time of the detention. It is because of these long-term effects that regional and international standards clearly state that immigration detention constitutes a child rights violation and is never in the child’s best interest
Furthermore, both countries have regulations or legal decisions that limit use of immigration detention in the case of children, regardless of whether they are accompanied or traveling alone. In Mexico, immigration detention of children is completely prohibited, while in the United States, children must be released without delay, or detained only in exceptional cases, always in the least restrictive environment. Currently, governments in both countries are violating these national standards.


Hundreds of civil society organizations and human rights experts from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala and other countries across the region are demanding an end to the harmful practice of immigration detention of children, highlighting that:

‘These are not isolated cases; rather they are ongoing occurrences that reflect patterns of human rights violations’

(Joint Statement)

Both in the United States and Mexico, governments are able to access alternatives to detention that allow children to be free and live with their families or in residential care, where they can receive appropriate support to ensure their physical and emotional wellbeing. These alternatives could be implemented immediately in order to avoid future tragedies.


IDC grieves over these recent events and reiterate our commitment to collaborate with government and civil society in order to develop alternatives to detention that are effective and humane.

It’s time to end immigration detention of children

Some of the children and youth who died after being detained by immigration authorities in the U.S. and Mexico are:*

  • Jackeline Caal, a 7-year-old girl from the Maya Q’eqchi’ community, originally from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, died on December 8, 2018 while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New Mexico
  • Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8-year-old boy from the Maya Chuj community, originally from Yalambojoch, Nentón, Huehuetenango, Guatemala died on December 25, 2018 while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas
  • Juan de León Gutiérrez, a 16-year-old boy from the Maya Chorti community, originally from Chiquimula, Guatemala died on April, 30 2019 while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas
  • A 2-and-a-half-year-old boy from the Maya Chortí community, originally from Chiquimula, Guatemala died on May 14, 2019 while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas
  • A 10-year-old girl, originally from Guatemala, died on May 15, 2019 in the immigration detention center (or ‘immigration station’) in Iztapalapa, México.
  • Carlos Hernández, a 16-year-old boy, originally from Guatemala, died on May 20, 2019 while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas


*Names and information primarily from the Mesa de Coordinación Transfronteriza Migraciones y Género México-Guatemala