Behrouz Boochani finally free in New Zealand

The Iranian refugee and journalist who wrote the award-winning book No Friend But The Mountains is at long last a free man.

Behrouz Boochani has finally been released from Australia’s refugee detainment centre, situated on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, over six years on from his original incarceration.

In that time, Boochani wrote an award-winning book on his situation via secretive WhatsApp text messages, provided an international voice for refugees, and shone a light onto the disastrous conditions and appalling treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island. His work has forced the Australian government to reckon with its shoddy stance on immigration head-on, bringing the dilemma to the forefront of debate and drawing global attention.

Boochani now has a one month visa in New Zealand while he attends a literary festival at Christchurch, and has been accepted by the US to resettle permanently. You can view his first interview since his release below.

Why is Behrouz Boochani well known?

Boochani’s story is a complicated one that touches on complex international relations and refugee policies. He grew up in Iran during the 1980s as Iraq’s military invaded the region, beginning a conflict that lasted most of that decade. After graduating university, he wrote articles for various publications that promoted Kurdish (an Iranian ethnic group) culture, and was also a member of the Kurdish Democratic party – which is now outlawed in Iran. Boochani feared for his life and fled the turbulent political situation in his home country in 2013, travelling toward Australia by boat before being detained by immigration authorities. He remained trapped on Manus Island for six years.

While under the eye of immigration authorities, Boochani secretly filmed himself at the camp and wrote an entire memoire via WhatsApp, sending text messages back to journalists and a translator in Australia. The resulting work, No Friend But The Mountains, went on to win the Victorian Prize for Literature at the start of 2019, making Boochani, ironically, one of the most prolific modern writers in a country he was barred from entering.

Boochani has become an international name as his work has forced Australians and the world to look deeply at a crisis that’s easy to sweep under the rug. His writings and articles disrupt the political narrative and stereotyping of refugees that many (particularly right-leaning politicians) use as justification for the country’s hard-line stance on immigration.

Put simply, Boochani is the voice of a silenced, oppressed group of people who’ve been forced into a state of limbo. Their treatment in the Manus Island detention facility is unethical and inhumane, contradicting Australia’s supposedly liberal and democratic government, and has become a more pressing and prominent issue thanks to Boochani’s journalism.

While he may now be free, Boochani still feels a sense of responsibility and guilt for the people who are currently trapped on Manus Island. ‘We can never leave them on that island’, he said to The Guardian. It’s not clear what will happen next, but I expect we’ll be hearing plenty more from him in the coming months.

What is the current situation on the island?

As of right now, there are still many stuck in Manus Island facilities who haven’t been properly processed.  The original detainment camp that Boochani was held in has now been demolished and declared illegal, but he wasn’t able to actually leave without documentation, and several hundred stranded individuals are still trapped.

Australia has consistently rejected New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees a year from the islands of Manus and Nauru, arguing that it would undermine its strict policy on illegal immigration by boat.

The estimated number of people on Manus Island seeking asylum in Australia has been reduced from 1,353 to 300meaning this is a problem that is thankfully receding rather than developing.

Papua New Guinea’s new prime minister, James Marape, has argued that Australia must develop a plan for the remaining refugees to be properly relocated – they have now been invited to stay in Papua New Guinea but this, as with everything in this story, comes with its own complications. Many of the terms are vague and each individual’s future is still uncertain, even after six years of terrible treatment.

Currently, Boochani is a free man in New Zealand, and will remain in the public eye for the foreseeable future. Where he goes next is still not absolutely concrete despite America’s offer, but one thing is certain – he has reason to smile, something he probably hasn’t had in a very long time.

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