For more than four-and-a-half years, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani has been in limbo on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
He was sent there by Australia in 2013, after he tried to reach its shores by boat.
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, fearing for his safety.
“I fell into trouble with the government … I hid myself for more than a month in Tehran in a friend’s house,” says Boochani. “After that I received some information that they [were] going to arrest me too and they [had] some plan … I decided to leave Iran.”
He travelled through south-east Asia and then by boat from Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
But while his boat was at sea, the Australian government announced a new radical 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 new offshore ‘processing centre’ on Manus Island. It was part of a deal in which PNG – in exchange for billions of dollars – would accommodate asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia until their claims to be refugees were decided.
“When we arrived they put us in a temporary place and they didn’t allow us to call our family….I thought I arrived in Australia as a free country, [but] after 20 days, they said ‘we are going to exile you to Manus Island and you must live there forever or you go back to your country’,” recalls Boochani.
Australia’s detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru have been criticised for its poor conditions by human rights groups including Amnesty International, who recently published a report criticising Australia’s immigration policy as one of ‘cruelty and neglect’.
“For us, it’s a prison, [it’s] even worse than a prison,” he says, describing his experience as “systematic torture”. “Six people already died under this policy in this prison camp…. Their policy was to create hate… They were happy for people in Manus prison to hate Australia, to forget Australia.”
Following a ruling by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea in October 2017, the camp was closed. Medical and support staff left, power and water supplies were disconnected. But most refugees refused to leave.
For three weeks, they lived in the former prison, surviving on rainwater and food smuggled in by locals.
“It was like a war zone,” says Boochani. “But in some ways we were happy because we were out of the systematic torture. The officers were not there… We were controlling our lives.”
The following month, those remaining were forcibly evicted by police. Some were hit with sticks and dragged onto buses to be relocated elsewhere on the island.
Ever since he was sent to Manus, and especially during the siege and the eviction, Boochani has used his journalism to draw attention to the conditions refugees and migrants face on Manus Island, where media access is tightly controlled.
He has written for international and Australian media, and, in 2017, shot a film on his mobile phone, which showed the reality of daily life in the detention centre.
“I don’t think of myself as a journalist or a refugee,” he says. “I feel that I am a human, I am fighting for humanity, for [refugees]. I know their suffering, I know them … I know their stories, so it is important to me.
“It is my duty as a journalist, it is my mission … to work on this issue and to tell people. Also the important this is that I am working to record this policy and history of this prison camp for the next generation.”
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