Mr Behrouz Boochani

27 November 2019

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (13:26): I rise to speak about the politics of hope. In February of this year I moved a motion co-sponsored by Senator McKim and agreed to in this chamber, congratulating Kurdish-Iranian refugee—and, I can now happily say, former Manus Island detainee—Behrouz Boochani on winning Australia's richest literary award for his memoir No Friend But the Mountains, a book he wrote documenting Australia's offshore processing and detention regime. It was painstakingly transmitted via WhatsApp, sentence by sentence, and translated in Australia. The motion expressed dismay that Mr Boochani was not allowed to attend the award ceremony for the Victorian Prize for Literature in Australia because of his continued offshore detention since 2013.

Mr Boochani's work has been celebrated the world over. Even if you've never read his book, Mr Boochani is remarkable for the way he has been able to continually highlight through social media the conditions faced by people in offshore detention. His efforts have ensured that they are heard even when the government has sought to silence them, dismiss their voices or denigrate them.

We are seeing this with things like the medevac legislation. If the government is to be believed—and it should not be—this legislation would be abused by murderers and rapists. In fact, the clinical review process commenced under the medevac legislation has instead highlighted the deterioration in health that people have suffered through prolonged detention and very substandard health care. You would think the government would care about this, but they're apparently too tone-deaf to hear facts that don't align with their punitive world view—a world view where they paint asylum seekers like Mr Boochani as undesirable and manipulative.

So it's good to see a positive story out of Manus and wonderful that Mr Boochani, at least, can now leave that personal hell behind. Over the last few months, an incredible international effort helped coordinate his flight to freedom. It was nothing short of a miracle, and I pay homage to Amnesty International, the UNHCR and all those involved in achieving this amazing feat. It was a long and arduous process to get him out of offshore detention. Mr Boochani travelled on a UNHCR passport, and his trip involved a transit stop in Manila on the way to New Zealand, where he is due to appear at a literary festival in Christchurch. Immigration officers in Port Moresby treated him suspiciously. They asked him a multitude of questions and made numerous phone calls despite all of his paperwork being in order. I can only imagine this would have been an incredibly nerve-racking experience for all involved but particularly for him. He could have been stopped in transit, and upon his arrival in New Zealand he might have run into issues despite being granted a visa by the New Zealand government.

Normally, Mr Boochani would have transited through Australia but, clearly, that was not an option for him and his team. They had to find a government that would allow him to make that onward journey. In the end they found a circuitous way to New Zealand through the Philippines. After 19 hours at the airport in Manila he boarded his flight to Auckland. After six years of offshore detention he could finally taste freedom. In total he spent 2,269 days in Australia's offshore processing regime—2,269 days! He has a one-month visa to stay in New Zealand and is still hopeful that he can resettle in the US, which has accepted him as part of Australia's refugee swap deal that was struck between former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former US President Barack Obama.

I, like many other Australians, was deeply moved by images of a smiling Behrouz Boochani standing in the sunshine in Christchurch Botanic Gardens. He was welcomed by the City of Christchurch with a civil reception and a traditional formal Maori welcome. His presence and freedom in New Zealand so poignantly underscores their country's political divide with Australia over immigration. Can you imagine this government doing anything like that for an award-winning asylum seeker? No, you can't. I can't. He was formally greeted from the plane by the Mayor of Christchurch and the city's Maori leaders, who told him he was welcomed by the mountains, the rivers and the people of the city. New Zealand MP Golriz Ghahraman, herself a former Kurdish refugee from Iran, was also on hand to greet Mr Boochani. She said New Zealand was a nation that stood against 'hate and division':

I'm just so proud that New Zealand gets to stand as the counterpoint to the kind of politics that has led to Australia’s prison camps being in operation for so long.

We've got a man like this, a human being … trapped for six years, and we get to be the country that stands for inclusion and for human rights and for freedom.

We need to remember Mr Boochani committed no crime yet spent years in detention and would face years more if not for the deal struck with the US. He battled bouts of depression. He wrote in his book of being jailed for eight days for reporting on a hunger strike. He was put in solitary confinement for reporting the torture of detainees to the outside world. He witnessed friends shot, stabbed and murdered by guards on Manus Island. He saw others die through medical neglect and watched many descent into mental anguish and suicide.

Behrouz Boochani has done more than any other person to document Australia's offshore detention regime, giving a unique and heartbreaking account from the inside. His future, though uncertain, is now filled with hope. He says he finally 'feels free'. He says he is never going back again to PNG, the place of his incarceration at the hands of the Australian government. It is a matter of record that the vast majority of asylum seekers in PNG were found to be genuine refugees, yet we kept them there in indefinite detention. Most have now left, either to Australia, to the US or to other countries. Seven men have died since 2012. About 267 men remain in PNG. Mr Boochani says he is distraught over the men who remain in limbo—in particular, 46 men being held at Bomana in Port Moresby. They have been deemed failed asylum seekers, but some of them have never had their applications for asylum properly processed. Their situation remains very much a concerning one.

I conclude with some quotes from Australians on social media, following Mr Boochani's departure from PNG and arrival in New Zealand. From Kate Winnall:

Behrouz, I'm Australian. I'm so sorry and ashamed for the way you and all on Manus Island and Nauru were and are being treated. Raise your voice, tell your story and hopefully change will come.

From Wendy O'Brien:

Behrouz. I have no words to describe how ashamed I am at what has been done to you and to all those incarcerated on the prison islands. Be free now, be free.

From Jasper Joy:

Would that they were all free. Behrouz, there are so many of us in Australia glad of your freedom today.

In this place we must all fight against the politics of fear and always strive for the politics of hope. Politics that rests on populism, misdirected anger and authoritarianism is doomed to eventually fail. History will ultimately be the judge of the pain inflicted by this cruel, inhumane experiment called Australia's offshore processing regime.

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