Will Detainee's Literary Prize Change 'Hypocrisy' of Australian Immigration Policy?

Behrouz Boochani has been detained in Manus Island for almost six years. His award highlights the mental and physical struggles that detainees are put through.

Behrouz Boochani has been detained for almost six years in Manus Island. Fleeing Iran, he sought asylum after the police arrested his colleagues and raided his office. Mid-voyage, his boat was intercepted by the Australian navy and he was sent to the detention camp in Manus Island. He has been there ever since.

The Wire reported in late 2017 about the terrible living conditions of the asylum seekers in Manus Island after they refused to be rehabilitated into temporary shelters, fearing violence and aggression from locals and authorities.

Not much has changed since. The Regional Processing Centre (RPC) at Lombrum Naval Base located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where asylum seekers reaching Australia by boats were detained, has been shut down. Now, about 600 asylum seekers like Boochani, have nowhere to go.

In times like these, Boochani began writing and reporting on his phone, as police would regularly break in and go through the possessions of detainees. He did not want to lose his writing. His book, No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison, written over five years, was published in July 2017. It won both the $100,000 literature prize and the $25,000 non-fiction prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019.

Boochani said it “brings enormous shame to the Australian government” when an asylum seeker under detention wins such a major prize. Since he is not allowed into Australia, he could not be present at the award ceremony. The award was collected on his behalf by his translator, Omid Tofighian, who believes that the award will have a significant impact on policies regarding asylum seekers in Australia and around the world.

A detention centre in Australia. Credit: Reuters

‘Neo-colonial oppression’

“This is one of the most vicious forms of neo-colonial oppression that is taking over the world at the moment – and to address this book in this way and to recognise it and draw attention to the narrative it is presenting will have repercussions for many generations to come,” he said.

The book had been ineligible for several other awards as Boochani wasn’t a resident or citizen of Australia. However, he was exempted from such guidelines by the Victorian prize administrators, the Wheeler Centre, as his non-fiction book was considered to be an Australian story.

“We canvassed the critical and broader literary reception of the book, and we made our decision on that basis,” said one of the judges. “This is an extraordinary literary work that is an indelible contribution to Australian publishing and storytelling.”

The prize could signify the Australia’s literary community’s recognition of the limbo-like state in which numerous asylum seekers dwell. It is, however, uncertain if it has actually altered the relation between Boochani and the Australian government. But the plight of homelessness and statelessness is certainly highlighted. It also emphasises the hostile approach of the government and the community towards “outsiders”.

“Clearly, they are taking us hostage. We are hostages – we are being made examples to strike fear into others, to scare people so they won’t come to Australia.” writes Boochani in his book.

In the past, numerous incidents have shown that the social order has failed to relieve the asylum seekers of the stress of social unacceptance in places like Manus and Nauru. Reports of detainees attempting suicide and others dying have also surfaced. A majority of the asylum seekers in detention camps experience mental health issues.

The Australian government, nonetheless, claims it is doing the best for the living conditions of these refugees. It also claims to be working towards rehabilitating them in Australia, another country or even sending them back to their country of origin. It also clearly states “there is no requirement for them to remain in detention in Australia”. The lack of viable resettlement options and poor living conditions have forced the refugees to ‘voluntarily’ return to their country of origin, mostly under pressure from officials. Last year, about 12 people were removed from Manus Island.

The average detainee spends 511 days in a camp, the latest report by the department of home affairs of the Australian government says. The time spent in detention is said to depend on a “range of factors, including the complexity of their case, the legal processes they pursue and whether they voluntarily choose to leave Australia.”

Australian immigration crisis 

Meanwhile, many writers, journalists, activist, including Boochani, are rallying against Australia’s hard-lined border protection policies. People who experienced Australia’s immigration procedure are writing about it. When Elephants Fight, Tears of Tarshiha, Always Another Country and Unbreakable Threats are some recent and upcoming releases. The work is usually diasporic, where a prefixed, clear identity of home might be lost in times where children are born identity-less.

Then there are documentaries like Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, co-directed by Boochani and Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani. “I am thinking about people in Manus and Nauru camps, especially kids,” Sarvestani messaged Behrouz on August 5, 2016. “I don’t know how humans can do this kind of thing to other humans. I would like to do something. I think there should be a fiction movie or documentary shot inside the camp. I know it is impossible for me to come there. Maybe with a small camera, we can do it.”

Australian filmmaker Gabriella Mady’s 2018 documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts, shows the emotional agony of detainees, many of whom have been separated from their family. “It’s a kind of hell here … Hell is where you see your family suffering, and you can’t do anything,” says a sequence in the documentary.

People like Jon Rose, a “fencologist” – one who makes music with fences – in the avant-garde scene where various mediums of creative art are recorded and shared, believe that one has to be blind and deaf not to see what fences are and how they are used.

Local organisations have also highlighted the plight of refugees. The Catholic church of Manus called for an end to indefinite detention. The request was made to the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’ Neill. “Third countries are rejecting them on health grounds because they are not productive and they’ll be a burden for the country of resettlement,” he said.

Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia released a report titled ‘Until Men? The Forgotten Men on Manus Island’. The report asks Australia to end offshore processing immediately and bring all the detainees to Australia or a safe third country. It has advised the PNG government to thoroughly investigate the allegations of violence against refugees and asylum seekers on the island and hold the perpetrators accountable.

These demands, along with other such as refugees receiving meaningful work opportunities for fair wages, could ensure that they are not deprived of their fundamental human rights.

Australia believes that sea voyages should be discouraged and that there should be no “product” for sea smugglers. Human Rights Watch called the country’s immigration policies hypocritical after the then immigration minister Peter Dutton’s office denied medical transfers to Australia for asylum seekers under offshore detention.

When Scott Morrison took over as the prime minister of Australia in August last year, there were 113 children in Nauru. At least 46 were born there, the children of a lost generation. However, over the past few months, Australia moved to resettle the children permanently. Quite recently, the last four children on Nauru were resettled in the US. The fate of men detained in Manus Island has not changed.

The US government agreed in 2016 to screen up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and PNG, but a majority haven’t been accepted. New Zealand offered to take in some people too, but Australia has discouraged it, saying it would allow asylum seekers to get in through the “back door”. The US has strict border protection laws, meaning applications take a long time to be processed. It bans immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This order, passed and signed by the Donald Trump administration in January 2017, was aimed to protect the nation from “foreign terrorist entry”.

Meanwhile, people in the detention camps are also writing about their experiences. Writing Through Fences is a website started by refugees living on Manus Island. They document their experiences in the form of narratives, poetry, interviews, and more.

The Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre say the man-made crisis in Nauru has an easy answer. They recommended bringing the detainees to Australia and rehabilitating them. As the number is tiny, it would also be cost effective for the government and would kill off this poison which is “slowly engulfing our politics, our identity, and our democracy”.


Rooted in a rock crevice
Torture begs for water,
Plaintive cries search in vain
While flares eagerly fill the earth —
A cage, gasping

Sleep is a drink of perfection
The eclipse permanent
When you sleep with me.

— M. (detained in Nauru for two years)

Ribhu likes poetry, vanilla ice cream and storytelling among other things. He actively writes on tech, society and culture and takes pleasure in long walks on empty beaches.