How Behrouz Boochani is changing the refugee narrative | News about refugees

He was told he would never set foot in Australia, but this week Kurdish-Iranian writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani finally entered the country’s parliament – the building where lawmakers’ harsh refugee policies have dictated his life for six difficult years.

“It was great to be here, to be able to talk to politicians, to talk to the media and the public,” Boochani told Al Jazeera on Tuesday after his visit.

“I’ve been eyeing this place for years, but I’ve always been disappointed [refugees].”

In Australia to promote his new book Freedom, Only Freedom, the outspoken Boochani spent six years in Australia’s offshore immigration detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as a result of a long-standing policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive by boat to detention centers outside the country.

They were told they would never be allowed to settle in Australia, leaving resettlement elsewhere their only option.

Asylum seekers spend an average of 774 days in detention, according to the Australian Refugee Council, in conditions variously described by human rights groups as “abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect”.

By comparison, Canada holds people in immigration detention for an average of just 15 days.

It was Boochani’s determination to expose what was happening through his writing that prompted then Home Secretary – and now Opposition Leader – Peter Dutton to say he “will not be allowed to come to Australia – we have been very clear about that”.

Boochani’s appearance in parliament in Canberra was in support of legislation proposed by the Green Party to evacuate the remaining 150 refugees from the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea and give them temporary visas in Australia.

“Our job is to put pressure on this government to see real change, to see real action,” Boochani said.

Manus Island detention center to be closed, Australia and Papua New Guinea agree
Australia has for years sent male asylum seekers trying to reach the country by boat to remote offshore detention centers in the Pacific, including Manus Island, where Boochani was held [File: Eoin Blackwell/EPA]

Freedom, Only Freedom describes the shocking treatment Boochani and hundreds of other men experienced at the hands of the Australian government while detained on Manus Island – recounting incidents of suicide, beatings, shootings, sexual violence and even murder.

Amid stifling heat and crowded, prison-like conditions, Boochani began working as a journalist and writer.

“Nine years ago – when I was exiled to Manus Island, I decided to smuggle a phone into the prison camp and start writing,” he told Al Jazeera.

“My main goal was to expose the system, to expose what was going on [on Manus Island].”

Challenging stereotypes

Boochani left Ilam province in Kurdish Iran, where he was born in 1983, after being threatened with prison in 2013 for his political activities as a Kurdish activist.

He flew to Indonesia with the intention of taking a boat to Australia where he planned to claim asylum, a right under international law.

While he was at sea, the Australian government amended the law to ensure that anyone arriving by boat – called an “irregular maritime arrival” – never settled in Australia.

The boat was intercepted by Australian Border Protection and Boochani was detained on Manus Island.

Using his smuggled phone, Boochani began contacting journalists and activists in Australia and sending them his texts.

Over time, he began to be published in media such as the British newspaper Guardian, first as a “source” and then under his own name.

“At first I didn’t feel safe, but later, after I created a network of journalists and human rights organizations, I felt safer to continue working,” Boochani told Al Jazeera.

Behrouz Boochani poses with members of Parliament in Canberra.  He is the center of the group and is dressed in black
Behrouz Boochani, who now lives in New Zealand, visited the Australian Parliament on Tuesday to support a Green Party bill to free the remaining refugees on Manus [Courtesy of Auspic]

He said his documentation of life on Manus Island “challenges the image” of refugees as passive victims and instead gives voice to the men’s experience and resistance.

“[People] they want to see refugees as victims,” ​​he said. “And I think being a fighter or a writer in that context was against that image. I think [the media] they were not satisfied with that picture. But later that changed.”

Boochani will write his first book, the award-winning No Friend But the Mountains published in 2018, by sending texts written in Farsi over WhatsApp to Iranian translators based in Australia.

One of those translators was Sydney-based Iranian journalist and refugee advocate Moones Mansoubi, who happened to arrive in Australia as a student the same year Boochani was detained on Manus Island.

Mansoubi – who runs the Community Refugee Welcome Center in Sydney – says she was “shocked” when she began communicating with Boochani about conditions at the detention facility.

“I came from Iran and I thought that Western countries were always faithful to international agreements,” she said.

“So it was a shock for me when he explained things to me in detail. I couldn’t believe how people could treat other people like this just because they sought asylum and protection in that country.”

Boochani’s latest book, Freedom, Only Freedom, is a collection of his previous articles and writings along with essays by academics, activists and journalists who have worked with him over the years.

Iranian-Australian translator and academic Omid Tofighian says it was a long-term strategy to elevate the writer’s work into a sphere where such scholars would view him as an equal.

“From the very beginning, I started introducing Boochani’s work to academics,” he told Al Jazeera.

“He is an intellectual creative. He is a writer, he is an artist. So it was really challenging to portray refugees as weak, needy, broken victims.”

Tofighian – who left Iran as a child in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution – told Al Jazeera that working on Boochani’s writings was “personal”.

“I felt that my lived experience, my family history, my connection to Iran could be channeled in really fascinating, important, meaningful ways, transformative ways, into this project with him,” he said.

“And, yes, it was very traumatic. There were times when you have to really immerse yourself in the experiences he’s talking about to really translate it well. I found myself thinking about them many, many nights after working on it. I couldn’t sleep.”

Based in New Zealand since 2019, Boochani’s tour of Australia has spoken to sold-out crowds across the country and his work has received critical acclaim.

Although he acknowledged his success, he told Al Jazeera that he found more satisfaction in encouraging other refugees to express their voices.

“Many refugees feel empowered, many refugees are inspired and feel that they can tell their own story, they can write, they can fight,” he said.

“Not only on Manus Island, but in Nauru and around the world. It doesn’t really matter what you write, even if you’re writing a love letter. If you write about anything that shows your dignity.”

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