As It Happens

Detained writer exposes Australia's notorious Manus Island camp from the inside

"I left Iran because I didn't want to live in prison," says Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani. "I seek asylum to Australia, and they jailed me."

Behrouz Boochani has been detained on the Papua New Guinea island since 2013

Behrouz Boochani is a writer, journalist and filmmaker who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013. (Jason Garman/Amnesty International )

This story was originally published June 20, 2019. 


When Behrouz Boochani fled Iran for Australia six years ago, he thought he would finally find freedom. But instead, he lost it completely. 

The Iranian-Kurdish writer and filmmaker left his home country in 2013 because he feared the government would imprison him for his journalism. But when he arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker, he was shipped off to Manus Island, an offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea, where he has been ever since. 

"I left Iran because I didn't want to live in prison. I seek asylum to Australia, and they jailed me," Boochani told As It Happens host Carol Off over a garbled phone line from inside the Australian-run camp.

"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?"

Boochani's book No Friend But the Mountains, which details life inside the camp, was released this month in Canada and the U.S.

He wrote it on a smuggled cellphone through a series of text messages to his translator in Sydney. For his efforts, he won the $95,000 Victorian Prize for Literature in February, but he was not allowed to enter Australia to receive the prize.

'I describe this place as a graveyard'

Boochani tells his own story in his book, but he also details the plight his neighbours on the island — people who have lost hope and resorted to self-harm and suicide. There are stories about people who have cut their own bodies or set themselves on fire.

"Most people here, they have experienced this kind of violence. Sometimes, it is like a political message that people do just to get attention from other people around the world to look at them, that they are dying here," he said. 

"But sometimes it's, you know, a psychological issue. So I think it's very complicated."

Under Australia's hard-line immigration policy, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to three camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or on Nauru.

They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.

After Papua New Guinea's High Court ruled in 2016 that the orginal  Manus Island detention centre was illegal, the facility was closed and replaced with three new camps in Lorengau, also located on Manus Island, which is where Boochani and hundreds of others are now.

The United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called on the country to shut down the island facilities, which they say are "inhumane" and ripe with abuse. 

"These days, I describe this place as a graveyard," Boochani said. "Because everyone is just locked up in their rooms and so they are depressed."

'Torture' and 'humiliation'

Boochani says some people in the camps report being physically abused by the guards, but that's not what he's referring to when he writes about the "systematic torture" he has witnessed and been subjected to. 

"When I say torture ... mainly I mean, you know, the humiliation," he said. 

"When a system [treats] you in a way to take your identity, take your humanity and reduce you to just a number and take your individuality, I think it is a big torture."

Boochani wrote his book, No Friend but the Mountains, one text at a time on a cellphone. (Submitted by Omid Tofighian)

People in the camps don't know why they're being detained, how long they will be there, or even where they will end up if they ever leave, he said. 

"They are treating you like a terrorist, like a criminal, while you are only a simple person like other people around the world," he said.

"One of the main questions that the people in Manus Island ask — and it is my question for years and years — that what is my crime? What is my crime?"

Writing history from the inside 

Since being detailed in 2013, Boochani has made it his mission to document life on Manus Island through his writing,  social media, art and films.

"These six years so far is a part of Australian history and it is a part of, you know, the human history," he said.

"That's why I think it's important that I record this for the history to teach the young generation. And hopefully the next generation [will not] do it again."

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

His work has earned him international acclaim, but he also faces pushback — especially, he said, from people in Australia.

"People on social media, on Twitter, attack me and they say that, you know, they are fully supporting what the government is doing on Manus Island and Nauru​​​​​​," he said.

"I think that is a fascism culture, because fascism makes people blind and they cannot see, you know, they don't feel humanity, they don't feel justice."

But still he keeps on speaking out — in part for his fellow asylum-seekers, and in part for his own wellbeing. 

"Creating art and writing for me first is an act of resistance because I can survive through writing and creating," he said.

"I feel that while I'm writing and creating, I am alive, you know, I keep my identity."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.