New Zealand / Refugees And Migrants

Manus Island refugee Behrouz Boochani not seeking NZ asylum - for now

13:48 pm on 15 November 2019

Prominent Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani, who landed in New Zealand last night, will not seek asylum here for now but will look at it later as a possibility.

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel and refugee journalist Behrouz Boochani hongi after his arrival in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

Mr Boochani, who is an award-winning author, journalist, and advocate for refugees held in detention on Manus Island by the Australian government, arrived in Auckland last night on a visitor visa.

At Auckland Airport last night, he told reporters this was the first time he had felt happy in a long time.

"I survived, you know, when I was in Manus or Port Moresby. I was just thinking about getting freedom ... [how to] affect Australia, challenge Australia, make people aware of this situation. But I think it's the first time that I feel happy because I survived."

The journalist has been detained on Manus Island since 2013 after arriving in Australian territory by boat.

He wrote the book No Friend but the Mountains on a smartphone app while imprisoned on the island, and won multiple international awards including Australia's richest literary prize.

This morning he was welcomed in Christchurch, where he will be a special guest at a literary event on 29 November, by Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Ngāi Tahu.

According to the Guardian, he took a 34-hour journey across three countries and six timezones in the Asia Pacific before reaching New Zealand.

"I prefer to be free of any process for a while in the time here" - Behrouz Boochani

He told Morning Report it was a long journey with struggles from PNG to New Zealand.

"It was quite hard to travel with a blue passport, which is for the UNHCR for the refugees, because at Port Moresby in the airport they ask many questions and it took a long time to get in the plane, in Philippines it was like that too, and in New Zealand.

"So I think it's natural everywhere that you travel with that [passport], people they don't treat you in the way they treat others, but it's fine. I'm tired but happy."

Asked whether he would want to apply for asylum in the country, he said he did not want divert his attention away from the objective of his visit, which is sharing his story in the book.

"I prefer to be free of any protest for a while in the time here, because it's the first time I can walk as a free man, that's why I prefer not to talk about this anymore.

"I want to be here for a while, and later we will look at that possibility, because I'm already accepted by America so for now I prefer to focus on this story and share it with people."

Before leaving Port Moresby, Mr Boochani told the ABC he would never be going back, saying he wants to be somewhere where he is a person, not just a number.

Mr Boochani was recently accepted for resettlement in the United States and told ABC at Port Moresby that he was investigating whether he could fly from New Zealand to the US, once the process was completed.

"First, I would like to just spend some time as a free man, but after that I will look at that - is it possible that I go to the US from New Zealand? Or I should stay there?"

He told Morning Report today he was happy to be a free man now and his new journey would involve understanding what freedom means, and enjoying the change of seasons for once.

"I told my friends and colleagues here that the first thing that's very interesting for me is I feel freedom, because I was in a tropical area for almost seven years ... so this is a very new thing for me ... so I think it will take time that I understand freedom and completely understand that I am a free man now."

Green MP and spokesperson for human rights Golriz Ghahraman, who travelled with Mr Boochani to Christchurch, told Morning Report she had not yet had a proper sit-down and chat about the journey with the journalist yet.

"I know that he's absolutely thrilled to be free, and last night he was just exhausted and so happy" - Golriz Ghahraman, Green MP

"It was another slightly harrowing journey [to New Zealand] from the sounds of it, but we received him on a flight coming from Manila."

Claiming asylum is a fundamental right that the country's laws recognise, and Mr Boochani has the right to do so, Ms Ghahraman said.

In a statement, Mr Boochani said he wanted the New Zealand Government to do more to help the hundreds of detainees who remain in PNG.

The Manus Island centre officially closed in 2017, but 250 of the 1500 detainees remain in Papua New Guinea.

New Zealand has repeatedly offered Australia to resettle 150 refugees a year from the offshore detention centres but has been rebuffed.

Ms Ghahraman said she was heartened by the prime minister's actions and that the offer remains on the table.

"The issue is also we actually need to keep our voice really loud on human rights issues, on refugee issues, as an independent voice on the world stage - as New Zealand has always been - so I think we really have a role to play there as well."

Welcoming to Christchurch

Mr Boochani was gifted with a pounamu necklace when he landed at Christchurch Airport, which he said was invaluable to him as an indigenous person.

"Christchurch city, and people of Christchurch and New Zealand, already educated people around the world and spread kindness, and showed and proved that kindness is important and reminded us we should keep our values and principles."

Behrouz Boochani. Photo: Twitter / Meg de Ronde

WORD Christchurch's programme director Rachael King, who invited Mr Boochani to the event, said she was thrilled he accepted to come on the condition he could secure a visa and travel documents.

"Festivals have become a place for people not only to enjoy books but also talk about the things in the world that concern us and the things that matter.

"We're so excited to have a writer of such international standing with us in New Zealand... we look forward to seeing lots of people at his event and we just really hope he has a wonderful time while he's with us."

At a press conference soon after his arrival, Mr Boochani told his story about leaving Iran in fear of reprisal for his activities as a journalist in the country, and seeking asylum in Australia.

"So I expected that they welcome me [or] at least consider my case, but unfortunately they exiled me to Manus Island. In other words, I can say I left Iran because I didn't want to live in prison, but Australia jailed me."

In a statement, Amnesty said it had sponsored Mr Boochani's visa so he could go to the event.

"Behrouz is not only a refugee, but a human rights defender whose dedicated journalism from within a detention centre earned him several awards and accolades. He is a voice for truth and we can't wait to welcome him here," said Meg de Ronde, Amnesty's executive director.

At the press conference today, she said his visit was a timely reminder of the people who remain in detention centres and how their abilities.

"The skills that these people have had have been held in limbo, and yet they've still triumphed," she said, mentioning Mr Boochani's creation of acclaimed works while held in the centre.

Mr Boochani said over the past six years he has been trying to challenge the system in Australia and its mentality through his works.

It was the right time to leave PNG, he said, adding that about 250 people remain in limbo at Port Moresby and another 200 in Nauru.

He said that 50 had been imprisoned at Bomana prison because they refused to claim asylum into PNG.

He reiterated his plea for the New Zealand government to take action.

"I would like to ask the New Zealand Government to directly have a negotiation with PNG and with Nauru to accept 150 people and more, because if New Zealand accepts people ... I think it's finished."

He also said mainstream media had a role to play too.

"I always criticise the current journalism language ... you have a short space so you should tell a story, so it's not enough for the tragedy that's happening in Manus.

"The mainstream media always use the language of power structure - they follow the language that was created by the system to keep people there.

"For example, they call that place an offshore processing centre … in my works, I try to create our language, create some concept to represent our situation. That's why in that book, I call that place prison.

"Although, I think that prison is not an enough word for that."

He said he hoped to extend his visa in New Zealand, at least for another month, due to other planned events.

He plans to fly between Auckland and Wellington in the coming days for events with Iranian-Australian artist Hoda Afshar and journalist Michael Green.