Kurdish Iranian journalist and award-winning author Behrouz Boochani has landed in New Zealand after six years in an Australian offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea, saying he has no plans to return.
The writer will be speaking at Christchurch’s literary festival, Word Christchurch, later this month about his book, No Friend but the Mountains.
The book, which details his experience as a refugee on Manus Island, was written on a smartphone via WhatsApp and has won numerous awards, including the Victorian Prize for Literature – Australia’s richest literary honour – in 2019.
This is the first time Boochani has been allowed to leave PNG, where he has been held by the Australian government since 2013.
I just arrived in New Zealand. So exciting to get freedom after more than six years. I have been invited by Word Festival in Christchurch and will participate in an event here. Thank you to all the friends who made this happen.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 14, 2019
As a journalist in Iran, Boochani published stories that promoted the Kurdish language and culture. He co-founded a Kurdish magazine, but after its offices were raided and several of his colleagues were arrested and accused of undermining the Iranian state, Boochani fled.
He travelled through Southeast Asia and then paid a people smuggler to take him by boat from Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
During Boochani’s journey, the Australian government announced a new immigration policy – denying settlement to all asylum seekers arriving “illegally” by boat.
Soon after his arrival on Christmas Island, Boochani was deported to Australia’s offshore processing centre on Manus Island, which was established as part of a deal in which PNG – in exchange for millions of dollars – would accommodate asylum seekers until their claims were decided.
Australia’s detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru have been frequently criticised for their poor conditions.
When the Manus Island centre was closed in late 2017, Boochani was forcibly removed along with more than 300 others. He was imprisoned in PNG until August, when he was moved to accommodation in the capital, Port Moresby.
Starting ‘a new life’
Boochani’s trip to New Zealand was made possible by the UN refugee agency, which organised his visa and travel with assistance from Amnesty International.
In a statement, Word Christchurch Director Rachael King said the organisation was delighted to finally welcome Boochani after months of planning.
“His story is powerful, his resilience is extraordinary, and his words have moved and rallied people around the world. That his book has brought him here is testament to the power of literature as an agent for change.”
— WORD Christchurch (@WORDChCh) November 14, 2019
Before leaving Port Moresby for New Zealand, Boochani praised Christchurch and said he would ask the New Zealand government to “take a leadership [role] and allow those who remain in PNG and Nauru to find safety.”
“Christchurch is a city that has already educated the world through kindness and humanity in response to the terrorist attacks earlier this year. I am very grateful that I have been welcomed by this city and have this opportunity to share ideas.
“Christchurch already proves that dividing society is a dangerous threat to unity and democracy,” he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern previously offered to take 150 refugees from Manus Island when the detention centre was still operating.
However, Australia has been reluctant to accept the offer, fearing it could create a “back door” to access Australia.
According to ABC Australia, Boochani has recently been accepted for resettlement in the United States and was investigating whether he could fly there from New Zealand once the process was completed.
He said he may apply for asylum in New Zealand.
“The important thing for me is to start a new life, somewhere I feel safe,” he told ABC.