As It Happens

After 6 years, prize-winning author detained on Manus Island lands in N.Z. — and vows to stay

Six years after first arriving to a detention centre on Manus Island, Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani is in New Zealand. He's on a temporary visitor's visa for a book festival. But Boochani says he'll never return to Manus Island if he can help it.

Kurdish-Iranian author and refugee Behrouz Boochani says now that he is off Manus Island, he won't go back

Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian Kurdish refugee and author. He was sent to Manus Island, an offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea, in 2013. (Jason Garman/Amnesty International )

For the first time in more than six years, Behrouz Boochani is tasting freedom.

Since 2013, the Kurdish-Iranian refugee and author has been detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Australia has been sending migrants to the controversial offshore detention centre for years. But Boochani is finally off the island and currently in New Zealand.

The country granted him a temporary visitor's visa to attend a book festival in Christchurch. 

"I'm very happy," Boochani told As It Happens host Carol Off. "But it will take time that you understand freedom. So for me now, I'm just feeling the city. I'm feeling freedom."

Refugees and asylum seekers hold up banners during a protest at the Manus Island immigration detention centre in Papua New Guinea in this undated photo from Refugee Action Coalition. (Refugee Action Coalition/The Associated Press)

That feeling is very different from the one Boochani described in his award-winning book, No Friend But The Mountains.

The book offered a brutal account of his life at the detention centre and made international headlines — partly because he wrote it on a smuggled cellphone through a series of text messages sent to a translator in Sydney, Australia.

The damning book earned Boochani the $95,000 Victorian Prize for Literature but he was refused entry to Australia to claim the prize. At the time, As It Happens spoke to Boochani who described the detention centre as "a graveyard" and explained his predicament to Carol Off. 

"I left Iran because I didn't want to live in prison. I seek asylum to Australia, and they jailed me," Boochani told Off in June. "So now I'm in between a religious dictatorship system, which is Iran, and the fascist Western system, which is Australia. So where should I go?"

Fast forward, and Boochani appears to have finally caught a break having been granted this temporary visa. But he is quick to acknowledge the work ahead in order to secure his safety and the safety of those he left behind.

"It's a great moment," Boochani said. "But, you know, regarding politics, I think it's very important that I share this story with the people of New Zealand."

Boochani says people are already questioning whether he will try to claim asylum in New Zealand. But he is still processing what's happened and not ready to make any rash decision.

"I want to be free, out of this system for a couple of weeks," Boochani said. "I want to enjoy this time and understand freedom. So that's why I'm not going to make any decision for a couple of weeks."

Boochani says that ultimately he wants to "work as a writer, as a free man." But he admits there is a disconnect between the international success of his book and the lack of international outcry over the conditions at the Manus Island detention centre.

"It is a global issue. There is a war against refugees," Boochani said.

"There are many stories. Regarding Manus, the Australian government always [tries] to hide this kind of crimes and that's why they exile us to a remote place, because they didn't want people to hear our stories."

With his writing, Boochani says he strives to tell those silenced stories and advocate for other refugees. He is encouraged that New Zealand has offered him a space and means to do that, even if temporary.

"I think New Zealand has a role to do something for humanity," Boochani said. "It is a challenge against the mentality of this system and the Australian government."

Boochani says he will try to get his temporary visa extended so he can avoid going back to the detention centre. (Submitted by Omid Tofighian)

While the visa may be temporary, Boochani says being sent back to the detention centre is out of the question.

"No, no, no. I'm not going to do this. What I am going to do is apply to extend [the] visa," Boochani said.

"I want to be out of any process. I don't want to put myself through another process, because many times over the past six years we worked through many complicated process. So right now, I prefer to be free."

Last week, As It Happens spoke to Iranian refugee Amir Sahragard. He also spent six years at Manus Island, which he described as "exactly like hell." Sahragard is now settled in Canada, which Boochani says gives him hope.

"Two years ago, we were 900 people, and now, in Manus ... we are more than 200 people. So we can say that most of people gone," Boochani said.

"I hope that Canada [will] take responsibility and let people — and do the process faster — that more people find a safe place and start a new life."

Written by John McGill and Jeanne Armstrong. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.