Lucy Popescu

Behrouz Boochani

I first wrote about the Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani in these pages in December 2016. Boochani is currently stranded on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where he has been held, on order of the Australian authorities, for the past six years. Those seeking asylum in Australia are often detained for years and given no idea of when they will be released. Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers has been widely condemned.

Boochani has refused to remain silent. While in detention, he wrote a book, No Friend But the Mountains (published in the UK this May), by sending one WhatsApp message at a time to the translator Moones Mansoubi. Earlier this year he won Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature and delivered his acceptance speech via video link from Manus Island, declaring that the award ‘is a victory not only for us, but for literature and art and above all … for humanity … It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers … Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature.’

In Iran, Boochani worked as a journalist, writing about Middle Eastern politics and Kurdish culture. He cofounded, edited and wrote for the Kurdish magazine Werya. On 17 February 2013, officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ransacked the magazine’s offices in Ilam and arrested eleven of Boochani’s colleagues. Several were subsequently imprisoned. Fearing for his safety, Boochani went into hiding.

Boochani had previously been interrogated about his writing and work teaching Kurdish culture and language. Several colleagues advised Boochani that he was at risk of arrest, so on 23 May 2013 he decided to flee Iran. In July, a boat carrying Boochani and other asylum seekers was intercepted by the Australian navy on its way from Indonesia to Australia. Despite immediately requesting asylum, as was his right under Article One of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Boochani was taken to Christmas Island, Australia. From there, he was forcibly transferred to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (now closed down), a place notorious for the ill treatment of detainees, where violence, sexual abuse and self-harm were common. On 26 April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the centre was illegal and unconstitutional as individuals seeking asylum in Australia were being forcefully brought to Papua New Guinea and held there against their will.

Boochani has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of his fellow asylum seekers and has published articles in some of Australia’s leading newspapers, as well as in The Guardian and elsewhere, exposing the terrible conditions that the detainees have faced. Over a six month period, Boochani clandestinely shot footage of conditions on Manus Island on a smartphone. The footage was made into a widely acclaimed film, Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, co-directed by Boochani and the Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani.

Boochani has continued to write about Kurdish and Iranian politics while on Manus Island and would undoubtedly be at risk of imprisonment should he return to Iran. According to PEN, given his criticism of Australia’s asylum seeker policy and offshore detention centres, Boochani is unlikely to be welcomed onto Australian soil. In May 2017, the Papua New Guinean and Australian authorities initiated the process of shutting down the Manus Island processing centre. The men held there were offered several options: temporary relocation to purpose-built refugee transit centres in Papua New Guinea, transfer to Nauru or repatriation to their own countries or a third country where they have a right to reside.

Fearing for their safety in Papua New Guinea, hundreds of men, including Boochani, protested against their treatment by refusing to leave the processing facility. After a four-week stand-off, the detainees were forcibly evicted from the decommissioned centre on 23 November 2017 and moved to new accommodation. In the process, several men were reportedly beaten with metal bars.

Boochani is now effectively marooned on Manus Island, where he feels unsafe, and his future is on hold indefinitely. The perpetuation of this state of limbo amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which is prohibited under international law, as affirmed in the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Australia is a state party. More and more stranded refugees on Manus Island are resorting to self-harm and suicide.

Readers might like to send appeals urging the Australian authorities to make resettlement arrangements immediately for Behrouz Boochani and all other migrants and asylum seekers currently located on Manus Island and Nauru, in accordance with international law; to ensure that detention is a matter of last resort and used only in cases where there are reasonable concerns for public safety; to inform detained migrants and asylum seekers in writing, in a language that they understand, of the reason for their detention, its duration, their right to have access to a lawyer, their right to promptly challenge their detention and their right to seek asylum; and to provide migrants and asylum seekers with access to adequate medical care (including mental health services), food, clothing and hygienic conditions.

Send appeals to:

Hon David Coleman MP
Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Service and Multicultural Affairs
PO Box 564, Revesby, NSW 2212, Australia
Email: david.coleman.mp@aph.gov.au | immigration.minister@homeaffairs.gov.au

Hon Peter Dutton MP
Minister for Home Affairs
PO Box 6022, Parliament House,
Canberra ACT 2600, Australia
Email: peter.dutton.mp@aph.gov.au | minister@homeaffairs.gov.au

Hon Scott Morrison MP
Prime Minister of Australia
PO Box 6022, Parliament House,
Canberra ACT 2600, Australia
https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

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