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Behrouz Boochani calls for urgent resettlement in New Zealand of refugees in limbo

Behrouz Boochani spent six years detained in an Australian offshore detention centre at Manus Island after fleeing persecution for his journalism work on Kurdish independence in Iran.

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Boochani wrote a book about the abuse on Manus Island, before being granted refugee status in New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS

Behrouz Boochani says leaving people without a future in Australian offshore detention needs to end, as he continues to push for New Zealand's offer of taking 150 refugees to be taken up. 

"It's enough," Boochani tells 1 NEWS. "In Port Moresby, it's not a safe place for the refugees, now with Covid the situation has become worse."

"And Nauru, Nauru is an island, a very small island. For the refugees it's like a prison, a real prison for them.

"You cannot just keep people in that situation without any future. An indefinite situation, in limbo. It's enough."

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Boochani was held at the Manus Island detention centre by Australia from 2013 – the same year New Zealand first offered to take 150 refugees a year until either there’s no one left in the offshore detention centres, or New Zealand rescinds the offer. That offer has never been taken up, despite there still being about 240 people left in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. 

It comes as talks between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern kicked off today amid fresh pressure on Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer

Morrison in 2018 argued that should it accept New Zealand's offer, refugees could use New Zealand as a "back door" into Australia. 

"I think that should offend New Zealand," Boochani said. "These people are refugees."

"If they come here, if New Zealand accepts them... they need protection, they need a safe place to start a new life. It's very simple." 

He said refugees would not use New Zealand as a "back door" into Australia. "I think that is just an excuse. I think no one should accept that."

"That doesn't make sense. That you keep these people in indefinite detention for eight years and always reject this offer, that doesn't make sense."

He worries about those still left on PNG and Nauru living in limbo in unsafe environments, and said it was "emotionally very difficult" to speak to them from the safety of New Zealand. 

Boochani exposed abuses inside the detention centre on Manus Island, publishing a book based off WhatsApp messages he sent. 

Boochani's book tells of life inside, giving an insight to the lack of food and medical care, and the self-harm and deaths of others. 

Life in New Zealand

Boochani spoke to 1 NEWS after he made the keynote speech at Amnesty International's annual hui, coinciding with the organisation's 60th birthday. 

Boochani describes New Zealanders as being "really polite", but that he sometimes struggles with the indirect nature of Kiwi communication. 

"Sometimes I find it really difficult to understand really what people think. Sometimes I have problems with that, but generally it's good. I'm still learning."

He enjoys his work in New Zealand, exploring the country and giving talks.

In particular he relished learning about the progress of decolonisation and its history in New Zealand and being able to compare it with the Kurdish resistance. 

"The reason I ended up at that island was because of my works against that colonialist system in Iran," Boochani said. "We, Kurdish people, are indigenous in Iran. We are fighting for basic rights, like just writing in our language."

"In Iran we are in the beginning, we are fighting just to let us teach our children in Kurdish. We have people in prison because of language."

He has one book coming out soon, and another collection of articles that he wrote on Manus Island also to be released. 

Boochani has been able to exercise his right to protest, attending protests for Black Lives Matter and the recent Gaza-Israel conflict. 

It is a stark difference from life in Iran, where 2019 protests labelled 'Bloody November' saw up to 1000 killed, according to Reuters. 

"It was a new experience where you attend a protest you will be safe," Boochani said. "You won't be killed."

He said New Zealand has a platform to speak out on human rights issues internationally, with an expectation it should use its voice to raise concerns. 

"For Australia in terms of refugees, we need New Zealand saying, 'take action', we expect that from New Zealand. 

"Just raising the issue is important, just raising the issue and addressing the issue of violations of human rights in many countries."

Boochani said for those living under a dictatorship or repression, a country like New Zealand condemning their treatment can make them "feel like they are not forgotten, and that is important". 

"If New Zealand says something, people hear that. We are not forgotten people." 

He adds that, "making people aware of something or of violations of human rights is not enough, we should work in a way, if we really want to create change, fundamental change, or real change… educate people to understand the issue, the context". 

Boochani said that in Australia, everyone was aware of what the Government had done in terms of its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. 

"But nothing has changed."

"Even if the refugees released from the detention, still this policy exists, that is another issue, that still the policy exists. Still the policy exists. that is a huge problem."

The Manus Island detention centre closed due to a court order in 2017, with many of those held put in other facilities on Nauru or Papua New Guinea. 

A UN working group continually condemned Australia's offshore detention programmes in 2018, with a UN Human Rights review seeing more than 40 countries question the policy and the lack of a time limit for those held. 

Amnesty International Aotearoa's Meg de Ronde said it was "beyond belief" Australia had still not taken New Zealand's offer up. 

"There are no longer any options left," de Ronde said.

"Australia can't keep imprisoning people. They are continuing to inflict human rights abuses on people in detention."

"There is no justification for treating people like this. It seems bizarre we're condemning other human rights abuses and because it's Australia we turn a blind eye?"

In 2013, Australia announced it would not let refugees arriving by boat settle on its shores. Many of them were fleeing persecution and violence. In 2016 Australia and the US struck a deal where the US would take 1250 refugees from offshore centres. 

In 2017, the deal was at the centre of a high-profile spat between then-President Trump and then Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, with Trump reportedly hanging up on the Australian PM and calling it a "dumb deal". 

The Guardian reported that despite this, so far, 1194 people had been resettled from offshore detention, with Australian officials saying New Zealand's offer may be considered once the US deal was done. 

Canada has accepted 140 people from detention centres, however the process is slow. 

De Ronde said it seemed as if Australia and New Zealand's relationship was at a stage "where New Zealand should probably stop worrying so much" – in light of the deportations to New Zealand and the stripping of Australian citizenship of Suhayra Aden, who Turkey calls an IS terrorist, after New Zealand attempted to work together on the then-dual citizen. 

"If we have neighbours breaking human rights law, I do think there are other options. New Zealand could go direct to Papua New Guinea (to take the refugees)."

De Ronde labelled Australia's "back door" claims a "complete cop out".

"We would expect the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to raise (the offer) again… at this stage we would hope Morrison would listen. 

A spokesperson from Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi's office said New Zealand's offer still stands, and there had been regular discussions since it was first presented. 

"Both sides continue to explore how it might be implemented."

"Any refugees considered by New Zealand for resettlement would undergo the same comprehensive assessment and screening that we apply to all refugees accepted under our UN Refugee Quota Programme."

New Zealand's refugee programme

Due to Covid, there were more than 1000 refugees who never made it to New Zealand, half of them estimated to be children. 

The Government has reinstated the refugee programme, but it won’t come close to meeting the refugee quota of 1500. 

Boochani said that Covid had made the situation even more difficult for refugees. 

"What is important in this context is time. People cannot wait for 10 years to reach a safe place," he said. 

"Children need education. Young people need a future. People need protection. It is urgent. You cannot just postpone it."

He said the Government should make up for the Covid shortfall in New Zealand's quota, ensuring those stranded are able to make a home in New Zealand.