Behrouz Boochani: ‘Many people have been damaged because of indefinite detention’

January 24, 2023
Manus Island protest 2017, Behrouz Boochani inset
Refugees protest on Manus Island in 2017. Photo: Behrouz Boochani/Facebook

Green Left’s Alex Bainbridge interviewed Kurdish-Iranian activist, author and film producer Behrouz Boochani about his latest book Freedom, Only Freedom, a collection of his writings along with essays from experts on migration, refugee rights, politics and literature.

Congratulations on setting foot on Australian soil after the government said you would never be able to come here. What do you want people to understand about this country’s refugee detention regime?

For many years I have been working not just to report about what is happening inside the prison camp, to understand the soul of the system and how it is brutal, but also to understand how the system works.

They put people through physical torture, as well a kind of violence which damages people mentally. Many have been damaged because of long indefinite detention: they use time to torture people.

I try to write in a way that people understand the whole policy; how it damages not only refugees but the political culture in this country.

You said in your book it’s difficult to be taken seriously as a journalist by Australia’s media. What are your thoughts about journalism and social change?

When I started to communicate with journalists in Australia a long time ago, they treated me like that. It took years to change that. But generally, that approach is like colonialism: people in the West see refugees as an “other”.

I struggle with that: it’s really difficult because people always judge you. Editors couldn’t accept that I am able to write.

I didn’t really care because I believed in what I was doing, in the power of literature and words and writing and art.

I have a paradoxical feeling towards journalism and especially mainstream media. They are a part of the system; they follow the language created by the government or power structure.

I always try to challenge that in my work. I try to write in a way or create a language to represent us or represent the situation, the reality, and not follow the language which exists now.

Some say journalism is about objective reporting. Others say journalism is a vehicle for social change. What do you think?

The problem with journalists is that they rely on official sources, especially when journalism is about [the] dictatorship system — for example journalism about Iran. You cannot rely on the official sources because they lie.

The system that designed the refugee detention industry in Australia is a kind of dictatorship. The media always relied on official sources, instead of relying on sources inside the prison camp.

I remember [former Coalition immigration minister] Peter Dutton was lying and [former Prime Minister] Scott Morrison was lying about us. When something happened inside the camp, when someone was killed, they always lied. We had to fight a lot to say that they are lying. But the media was relying on what the government said.

There are many examples. One is when Reza Berati was killed [in 2017] Morrison said he jumped the [Manus Island prison] fence. Morrison was lying. Dutton said it was because refugees brought a small kid into the prison camp and they wanted to rape him. He was lying.

Why should the media rely on official sources, or what officials say? It is a kind of dictatorship system towards refugees.

One of the fascinating things in your book is what you describe as “Manus Prison Theory”. Could you expand on that?

I had a long conversation with [Iranian-Australian philosopher and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney] Omid Tofighian about the [refugee prison] system. We expanded that conversation and finally I wrote an article, Manus prison theory, in which I compared the movie I Daniel Blake with the system in Manus Island prison.

We see it in Australia as well because Manus has its roots in Australia’s colonialism mentality — a bureaucratic system — and we can expand it to the marginalised people in the society.

In general, Manus Prison Theory is about resistance knowledge created by refugees and people who are working with refugees. That knowledge exists in Manus.

What we can learn from that resistance? The reason I am in Australia is to introduce that as well to remind people to look at Manus again and see our work and our resistance.

That refugee perspective is important because we have been fighting against the dark side of liberal democracy. Our understanding or perspective of liberal democracy is very different.

During the federal election [last year] people were saying Morrison is lying. But we knew that because they first lied to us. But most Australians believed what they were told.

Video: Behrouz Boochani on freedom, hope and Manus Prison Theory | Green Left Show #31. Green Left.

You said that hope was your secret weapon. Can you expand on that?

If you lose hope, you can’t continue: you accept the situation and you cannot really work, or fight, against it.

For many years, we were hopeful that one day we would get freedom, one day we can challenge that system. Sometimes, during the election, people really would lose their hope. But, generally, I think we were hopeful.

Labor has introduced some changes to refugee policy, but not what it promised in opposition. What are your views on Labor’s policies?

We haven’t seen any progress yet. What we’ve seen, so far, is just showing off, just playing with some refugee cases.

A big part of society wants to believe in that, and pretend that something changed. But really nothing has changed.

People are still in detention and thousands of people who have been in Australia for more than a decade still don’t have future.

Hopefully, they do something. But even if they process the 19,000 people who came here under Medivac [without processing the others] those people don't have a future in this country.

For example, I got visa to visit Australia. It is a part of the propaganda to send a message to people that something has changed because Behrouz is here. But I’m not important. What is important is those people who are suffering: they need to be processed, given a visa and allowed to stay to establish their lives.

I think the [government] will probably announce a policy change soon. But announcing a policy is one issue.

For refugees, time is very important: [even despite] the agreement between Australia and New Zealand or the deal with the United States, people are still waiting to go to America after five years.

What are your views on the democratic uprising in Iran and, more broadly, the Kurdish liberation movement, the Rojava revolution?

Most people in Iran want regime change so absolutely they reject this system. That will happen but I don’t know how or when.

I think the uprising is against two structures: Persian supremacy, which I call nationalism; and also patriarchy.

Among the opposition we have two sides: a left and a right. The left includes ethnic minorities, like the Kurdish people, because this revolution has started from Kurdistan and has been lead by Kurdish people, and also other ethnic minorities. The feminist movement against patriarchy has been led by women, so women have a big role in challenging the government.

It’s very important that people in the West, and around the world, understand that this revolution is against two structures: nationalism and patriarchy. So, the feminist movement is aligned with ethnic and other minorities.

A big part of the opposition just want to change the regime without changing the values. But we want to change the values. We want to bring down this patriarchal system as well as the Persian supremacy.

Are there any final comments you want to make?

It’s very important to recognise the work of Tofighian and [community, arts and cultural development worker and translator] Moones Mansoubi. What they have done is really important: they are part of the resistance knowledge that I’m talking about. We refugees really wouldn’t be here if Moones and Omid did not approach me to work with me.

[Freedom only Freedom is available from Bloomsbury Publishing. Boochani is a special guest of Sydney’s Kurdish community in Blacktown on January 28. Get your free tickets here.]

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