“We didn’t leave our countries to live in a place like this for 5 years”. Interview with Manus Island refugee Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian asylum seeker and journalist, claims that health care provided to refugees on Manus Island is purposefully neglectful in a bid to encourage them to return home.

Contacted on Manus Island by Dscribe, Mr Boochani says many are suffering psychologically and are at breaking point. He also claims the option for refugees to resettle in Papua New Guinea is unrealistic.

Mr Boochani, 34, was transferred to the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre, one of three newly built transient centres following the closure of Australia’s offshore processing camp in November 2017.

Mr Boochani said the refugees are receiving no psychological help as they struggle with the continuing lack of freedom.

“We still have some problems regarding health issues. Many refugees have psychological illness but there are no psychological facilities on Manus (Island) at all. Generally I can say the system is using this situation to put pressure on the refugees to go back to their countries.”

This month saw the return of a suicidal 17 year old Iranian refugee, Hamid, to Nauru despite professional psychiatric advice which said the severity of his mental illness is caused by being held in detention. Hamid and his mother Fatemah left the facility for Taiwan for 2 months where Fatemah received critical heart surgery. Fatemah refused to leave Hamid, who had been suicidal for five years, behind.

“Generally I can say the system is using this situation to put pressure on the refugees to go back to their countries.” Behrouz Boochani. 

In April 2016 the PNG Supreme Court found that the detention of asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore processing centre on Manus Island, where adult males are detained was ‘unconstitutional’ and illegal breaching human rights laws.

Following this ruling refugees were allowed to come and go from the centre albeit with strict conditions.

In November 2017 the detention centre was closed indefinitely and 600 refugees were divided between three new transient centres.

The three centres based on Manus Island, East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre, West Lorengau Haus and Hillside are funded by the Australian Federal government costing $30 million.

Refugees living in the centres are allowed to leave during the day but are restricted in their movements.

In 2013 when working as a journalist in his native Iran, Mr Boochani fled for Christmas Island after his colleagues were arrested for promoting Kurdish language and culture and accused of undermining the state.

Mr Boochani’s first attempt to make it to Australia with the help of Indonesian people smugglers was thwarted when the boat sank near Indonesian shores. Mr Boochani was picked up by fishermen who turned him into police. He then escaped custody to make a second attempt at reaching Christmas Island.


Source: Amnesty International

While Mr Boochani was at sea the then Labor Government headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a radical new policy to ‘stop the boats’ which was to deny settlement to asylum seekers arriving via boat ‘illegally’. Mr Boochani arrived on Christmas Island days after this announcement.

Australia’s Immigration Policy and the treatment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru has been heavily criticized with an Amnesty International report labelling the policy ‘neglectful’ and ‘cruel’. Mr Boochani said, “We didn’t leave our countries to live in a place like this for five years.”

Tragically there have been nine reported deaths recorded of men in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Options for asylum seekers detained on Manus Island are dire. They can resettle in PNG, return to their home country which they fled to escape persecution or wait in PNG to be resettled in the US if they are eligible.

Tensions between the asylum seekers and locals have become more obvious with several violent attacks occurring on the island. In February, while walking through the town in Lorengau, asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran and Pakistan were allegedly attacked in by a group of soldiers from the Papua New Guinea defence force.

Mr Boochani, believes the assimilation of refugees in Papua New Guinea is unlikely as locals are “angry” at Australia as they feel their country has been used for “political purposes” and as a developing country, they do not have the means to support refugees. He says that many local people struggling with poverty need assistance from the government and are frustrated that these resources are being extended instead to the refugees.

“Many people in PNG need help because of poverty and it’s better that the government protect them, not the refugees.”

A deal made with the Obama administration has seen 84 Manus Island refugees resettled in the US.

Donald Trump’s travel ban saw every Somalian and Iranian refugees detained at Nauru be rejected for US resettlement. Trump’s ban excludes citizens from Somalia, Iran, Yemen, Syria and Libya which all have a strong Muslim contingent. 

The average number of days asylum seekers who arrived ‘illegally’ by boat kept in Australian detention centres have been held in detention is 826 days as of February 2018 according to the Department of Home Affairs. 

The Lowy Institute poll taken in 2017 gives some insight on how Australians feel about refugees. Almost half of the 1200 people who took part in the survey believe that refugees held in detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island should not be offered residency in Australia (48%) compared to 45% who think refugees should be resettled in Australia. 

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office did not respond to the request for a comment.

Mr Boochani regularly uses Twitter and Facebook to speak out about his experiences on Manus Island. He co-directed the documentary ‘Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time’ which was screened at the Sydney film festival and writes a regular column for The Guardian.


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