Behrouz Boochani: Australia is introducing a ‘new kind of fascism’


PHOTO/Hoda Afshar

The Kurdish-Iranian writer has been imprisoned on Manus Island – part of Australia’s notorious asylum detention network – since 2013. But that hasn’t stopped him from writing an award-winning book. Using WhatsApp, Husna Rizvi interviews Behrouz Boochani.

Immigration detention centres are prisons for those who have committed no crime. They are notoriously secretive: insulated from the media and portrayed by governments as a necessary means of protecting the nation-state. Few have managed to powerfully narrate the experience of being detained while being inside.

Behrouz Boochani, a 35-year-old Kurdish-Iranian refugee – currently detained on Manus Island, an island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that is used as a de facto prison for asylum-seekers heading to Australia – has done just that.

Boochani is in his sixth year of imprisonment without charge. He was originally held in Manus Island Detention Centre but, after it was forced to close in 2017 following a ruling that it violated PNG’s constitution, he and 600 other asylum-seekers have been left to languish on the island.

Throughout this experience, Boochani was writing a non-fiction book using WhatsApp and a smuggled phone. This year, No Friend but the Mountains: Writings from Manus Island Prison won the $70,000 Victorian Prize for Literature.

‘I don’t have this right to celebrate because there are so many people around me who are suffering,’ Boochani tells me via WhatsApp. ‘I certainly did not write this book just to win an award. My main aim has always been for the people in Australia and around the world to understand deeply how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and Nauru [another island hosting a refugee prison] in a systematic way for almost six years.’

A new kind of fascism

In 2013, Boochani fled Iran to escape persecution for his dissident journalism, arriving in Manus just days after a policy to detain all asylum-seekers reaching Australia by boat was introduced. The indefinite nature of his imprisonment means he doesn’t know when he’ll be released. Twelve have died on the island already, many from suspected suicide.

Despite threats of solitary confinement and punishment, Boochani also used his smuggled phone to produce journalism for The Guardian and film a documentary from the inside. He has been keenly following political developments in Australia, where federal elections are due to be held in May 2019.

‘The situation [is] getting worse day by day. Unfortunately there are only two months [until] the federal election in Australia and [the status of refugees has] become the main political subject in the election, which is very sad. The government has started to [spread] more propaganda against us in the media, when we are innocent people.’ Tackling this system is not just about looking at authority figures or an immigration minister or even policies. This is a whole philosophy. This is a whole ideology and what’s needed is theoretical work alongside the kind of practical action

Boochani has consistently reported on the human rights violations taking place on Manus, including the almost non-existent access to medical care and reports of wrongful death and torture on the island. In the process of shutting down the processing centre in 2017, the authorities turned off the water and electricity supply, while 500 refugees – fearful of being abandoned on the island – barricaded themselves in for 22 days. Boochani was one of many who had to dig wells in the earth in search of water.

‘Parliament passed a bill [a] few weeks ago to evacuate sick refugees to Australia for medical treatment. Right now we are waiting for the government to follow this new law. What is making the situation harder is that there are many people who need urgent medical treatment and if the government continues to ignore the new law it will be risky for sick people. We shouldn’t forget that so far 12 refugees [have] died.’

No Friend but the Mountains, which Boochani tells me he does not yet have a copy of, is part-memoir, part-commentary on his journey, beginning on a dilapidated boat in Indonesia, to his current residence on Manus Island.

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