Refugee and Author Detained by Australia Is Given Visa to Travel

The New York Times 1 month ago

A Kurdish-Iranian refugee and award-winning writer who was held by Australia for years at a detention center on a remote Pacific island arrived in New Zealand late Thursday, after becoming a cause célèbre for rights activists.

The refugee, Behrouz Boochani, 35, who became a prominent voice for the hundreds of people exiled on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as part of Australia’s controversial detention program, received permission to leave for the first time in years.

The Australian government has paid neighboring countries to detain hundreds of asylum seekers and other refugees who arrive by sea. This is the first time Mr. Boochani has been granted permission to leave Papua New Guinea since his detention began in 2013, after he was given a visitor visa to enter New Zealand to speak at the WORD Christchurch literary festival on Nov. 29.

He was held in a detention center on Manus Island until it closed in 2017, and he was then moved to another part of Papua New Guinea. It is not clear what his status will be after the festival, although he has vowed never to return to Papua New Guinea.

“So exciting to get freedom after more than six years,” Mr. Boochani said on Twitter on his arrival at Auckland Airport late on Thursday night. “Thank you to all the friends who made this happen.”

Mr. Boochani, who worked as a journalist with the Kurdish-language magazine Werya, fled Iran in 2013 after officials raided his office. He traveled to Indonesia and tried to reach Australia by boat, where he planned to seek asylum. But he was intercepted by the authorities.

After being moved to a remote detention camp on Manus Island, he documented rights abuses against the hundreds of asylum seekers held alongside him on Manus Island, where he has spent the last six years, and those on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Many of the detainees were from the Middle East and Africa and were seeking refugee status.

Mr. Boochani’s writings raised awareness of the situation on the island, which was largely closed off to international journalists and rights groups. He wrote of daily life on the island, posting updates on social media about squalid conditions at the camp and the suicides and self-harm that became commonplace among the detainees. He revealed inadequate access to heath care, deteriorating facilities and desperation among the men housed there.

He shared details about Manus in 2017 with The New York Times after President Trump walked back promises made by President Barack Obama to relocate all detainees who had received refugee status to the United States. His work was also published by numerous local and international outlets.

“We are under such pressure and a hard situation,” he said at the time. “We cannot go back, and we are still here.”

Working with a translator for five years via messages in Farsi over WhatsApp, he wrote a book, “No Friend but the Mountains,” for which he won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. The prestigious Australian award, selected from a short list of winners in other categories, comes with an award of 125,000 Australian dollars, or about $90.000.

He has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Award, the Australian Book Industry Award for nonfiction and the National Biography Award.

Human rights groups have long denounced Australia’s policy of detaining migrants and asylum seekers in offshore detention centers like the one on Manus, but the government has maintained that it is necessary to deter those arriving in the country by illegal means.

Australia closed the center on Manus Island in 2017 and moved some of the asylum seekers. Others who received official refugee status have been resettled in the United States, but hundreds remain in limbo on the island.

The Australian government said last month that 562 refugees and asylum seekers remain in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru.

Meg de Ronde, the executive director of Amnesty New Zealand, which was involved in obtaining a visitor visa for Mr. Boochani to attend the literary festival, said on Twitter that it was a “life & career highlight to be a small part” of his arrival.

In an earlier statement, Ms. de Ronde said, “This is a spark of hope after he has fled violence and persecution, first in Iran and then from Australian authorities.”

On Thursday, the organizers of the festival released a statement on Mr. Boochani’s behalf. In it, he said he would continue to speak out against the Australian offshore detention system, “which is designed to deter refugees from seeking asylum and, ultimately, has caused grave harm and torture.”

He also said he would ask the government of New Zealand to aid those who remained in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations rights chief, recently spoke out about Australia’s migration and asylum policies in a speech at the Whitlam Institute in Sydney.

“I have a number of serious concerns about migration and asylum policies in this country, including the so-called offshore processing regime and prolonged mandatory detention of refugees and asylum seekers,” she said.

Ms. Bachelet added that she feared the public narrative in Australia about migration and asylum “has become weaponized by misinformation and discriminatory and even racist attitudes.”


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