Refugee pho­tos a haunting re­minder

Who are th­ese peo­ple? Where are th­ese peo­ple now? They’re home­less. They don’t have an iden­tity.’’

Kapi-Mana News - - FRONT PAGE - By AN­DREA O’NEIL

Hun­dreds of plain­tive, de­fi­ant and de­feated pairs of eyes stare from Pataka’s walls, their gaze pro­vok­ing search­ing ques­tions about New Zealand’s at­ti­tude to refugees.

New ex­hi­bi­tion Refugee fea­tures en­larged pho­tos of refugees from Afghanistan found in an aban­doned Ira­nian de­ten­tion cen­tre by a Welling­ton man on his OE.

Mur­doch Stephens smug­gled 1173 of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pho­tos out of Iran in 2009 with­out a clear idea of his in­ten­tions, but want­ing to save the his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments from ne­glect or de­struc­tion.

‘‘ They were very pow­er­ful, strong im­ages. I felt im­pelled to take them. It was a story that needed to be told,’’ he said.

The pic­tures show fam­i­lies, cou­ples, sib­lings and sin­gle refugees de­tained be­tween 1989 and 2005 in a fa­cil­ity in the Ira­nian desert, while civil war raged in Afghanistan.

Some of the pho­tos look like happy fam­ily por­traits, with sit­ters dressed in their fin­ery and beau­ti­ful fab­ric hung as back­drops. Oth­ers evoke haunting pho­tos of doomed pris­on­ers dur­ing Cam­bo­dia’s pe­riod of geno­cide. Some refugees are marked with crosses, the sig­nif­i­cance of which can only be guessed at, Stephens said.

Stephens was en­cour­aged by Afghani friends and ex­perts in New Zealand to ex­hibit the pho­tos, and in­tends even­tu­ally to re­turn them to Afghanistan’s Kabul Univer­sity.

Mean­while, he said he hoped the pic­tures would draw at­ten­tion to New Zealand’s patchy record on ac­cept­ing refugees. De­spite a com­mon be­lief that New Zealand leads the world on hu­man rights is­sues, our refugee per capita rate is ranked 97th in the world, just above Ta­jik­istan and Malawi.

‘‘ We don’t keep very grand com­pany.’’

Aus­tralia ac­cepts five times as many refugees per capita than New Zealand.

New Zealand had filled its United Na­tions quota of 750 refugees only once since 2008, and took only 85 asy­lum seek­ers last year from 300 ap­pli­cants, Ste- phens said. By con­trast, in the 1990s New Zealand ac­cepted an aver­age of 500 asy­lum seek­ers a year.

Stephens would like to see New Zealand dou­ble its UN quota.

‘‘We’re not do­ing our bit in­ter­na­tion­ally. We like to think we’re re­ally hos­pitable peo­ple, we like tourists and for­eign­ers, but there’s some­thing about true hos­pi­tal­ity – it’s not about money or what peo- ple will give back, giv­ing.’’

New Zealan­ders tended to be hos­pitable to the refugees we did ac­cept, but more money needed to be ded­i­cated to help­ing refugees set up home in New Zealand, learn­ing English and find­ing jobs, Stephens said.

‘‘What re­ally mat­ters to peo­ple who have been given refuge is the es­teem that you get from

it’s about mean­ing­ful work.’’

Pataka se­nior cu­ra­tor, Bob Maysmor, said Refugee prompted more ques­tions than it an­swered.

‘‘Who are th­ese peo­ple? Where are th­ese peo­ple now? They’re home­less. They don’t have an iden­tity as such,’’ he said.

‘‘I wanted it to be evoca­tive. I wanted peo­ple to stay and think of th­ese fam­i­lies, of th­ese cou­ples, of the old folk.’’


Lives in limbo: Welling­ton man Mur­doch Stephens has cre­ated a con­fronting ex­hi­bi­tion at Pataka from refugees’ pho­tos he smug­gled out of an Ira­nian de­ten­tion cen­tre while on his OE.

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