Australia wrong to deny Iranian writer Boochani asylum

Australia wrong to deny Iranian writer Boochani asylum

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist and writer who was forced to flee Iran in 2013 for fear of being attacked or arrested for his writing and political beliefs. He wrote about politics, minority rights and Kurdish culture. He co-founded and produced a Kurdish magazine, Werya, which promoted Kurdish culture and politics, but it also gained him unwanted attention from Iran’s secret police and they warned Boochani to stop writing or risk imprisonment.

In February 2013, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps raided the offices of Werya and arrested 11 people working there. Boochani feared that he would be next so went into hiding. His fear was justified, not only because of the arrest of his colleagues at this magazine, but also because of Iran’s continuous crackdown on journalists ever since the revolutionary regime came to power in 1979. The attacks against journalists increased in 2011 and 2012, when at least 47 were imprisoned each year. In 2013, the year Boochani fled, 36 journalists were detained, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Behrouz went into hiding inside Iran until May 2013, when he left the country secretly and tried to seek asylum in Australia. His boat was intercepted by the Australian authorities and, despite his compelling case as a refugee, he was not allowed to land in Australia to have a hearing to determine his status. Instead, he and his fellow travelers were detained, first on Christmas Island and, after one month, in the Manus Island detention center, where Behrouz remained until earlier this month.

He stayed in detention for more than six years. His case was studied by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which determined that Boochani was a bona fide refugee under the UN Refugee Convention. Australia is party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. These define a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Behrouz fit the criteria, as the UNHCR has determined, but that was not enough to release him from detention.

During his time in detention, Boochani authored several works, including novels, short stories, articles, films and poems. He wrote his book “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison,” which he sent in small portions to a friend via messages on his smuggled smartphone. He employed the same method in sending out video segments to be included in a documentary about refugee detention facilities.

While in detention, Boochani won a dozen literary, artistic and human rights awards, including some of Australia’s top prizes. One of his latest awards is Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature for “No Friend But the Mountains.”

Warehousing refugees for years on end in remote islands is not a solution worthy of Australia’s reputation and standing in the world.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

In early November, he was granted a one-month visa to visit New Zealand to participate in a literary festival, after which he is required to return to Manus. He has made it clear that he does not want to return there, and he is not confident that a US offer to take him in is still valid now that he is out of the detention center. Earlier, the US had offered to take in 150 refugees annually from Australia’s detention centers.

Australian refugee advocates have long criticized their country’s refugee policy, especially the practice established by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott of sending refugees and asylum seekers, against their will, to remote Pacific Islands. A study released this summer by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales questioned Australia’s refugee policy and suggested several steps to bring it into line with its obligations under international law, as well as making it more sustainable and humane.

Director of the center Jane McAdam said: “Australia is violating many of our international obligations and it is really out of step with what other comparable countries are doing. Every person has a right to seek asylum. As a matter of international law, people who come here in search of protection have not broken the law. Australia is actually breaking the law by not offering people protection when they are in need of it.”

Warehousing refugees for years on end in remote islands is not a solution worthy of Australia’s reputation and standing in the world. It is a throwback to the days when the country implemented discriminatory policies toward refugees and immigrants coming from certain areas. In the case of refugees fleeing Iran, as with Boochani and other ethnic Iranians who are facing persecution because of their ethnicity or political beliefs, the Australian government is quite aware of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government against its ethnic and religious minorities.

To deny asylum to such a worthy figure as Boochani not only violates Australia’s obligations under international law, but also deprives Australians of his talents and the diversity he brings. If either New Zealand or the US offers him asylum instead, it is they who would be the winners.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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