Journalist held for 6 years gains New Zealand refugee status

Behrouz Boochani

FILE – In this Nov. 19, 2019, file photo, Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish film-maker, writer and refugee who has documented life inside the Australian offshore immigration camp on Manus Island, poses for a portrait in Christchurch, New Zealand. New Zealand immigration on Friday confirmed that Boochani, who fled Iran and then exposed Australia’s degrading treatment of asylum-seekers while being held against his will for six years, has been granted refugee status in New Zealand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A journalist who fled Iran and then exposed Australia’s degrading treatment of asylum-seekers while being held against his will for six years has been granted refugee status in New Zealand.

Immigration New Zealand on Friday confirmed that Behrouz Boochani had been given the status, which allows him to legally stay in the country and gives him a path to citizenship.

Boochani, 37, said while it was huge step forward to have certainty about his own future, the development had left him with mixed feelings.

“I feel relieved, it’s the end of very long story, my personal story,” Boochani said. “But on the other side, the whole story still remains, and I’m only part of whole story. This policy of Australia still keeps people in indefinite detention.”

While the numbers of asylum-seekers being held in offshore detention camps by Australia has been significantly reduced over the years, Boochani said there are still hundreds being kept in limbo on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, as well as within Australia.

Boochani first traveled to New Zealand from Papua New Guinea in November on a temporary one-month visa to speak at a literary festival about his book, which details the time he spent at Australia’s notorious offshore detention camp on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

After his visa expired, he stayed on in the city of Christchurch, choosing to keep a relatively low profile as his case became politicized in New Zealand.

Some questioned why he’d been allowed in the country on a temporary visa if he’d always intended to stay, and why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hadn’t been told he was coming.

“I don’t want to be a politician. I didn’t want to create a challenge in this country,” Boochani said. “I have a simple life, and have been doing work overseas.”

Boochani confirmed he had previously been recognized as a refugee by the U.S., although said the process had never been finalized. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has been reluctant to accept refugees from certain countries, including Iran.

After Boochani, an ethnic Kurd, fled from Iran he eventually made his way by boat to Australia’s Christmas Island in 2013 and was later held on Manus Island.

Using a smuggled phone and posting to social media, Boochani shone a light on the plight of hundreds of asylum-seekers. He detailed the unsanitary conditions, hunger strikes and violence, as well as deaths caused by medical neglect and suicide.

He said he felt a responsibility to film and write, to challenge the system and expose what was going on.

He eventually used his phone to write his book, sending snippets in Farsi to a translator over the messaging app WhatsApp. Called “No Friend But the Mountains,” the book won a prestigious Australian award, the Victorian Prize for Literature.

Boochani couldn’t collect his award or the prize money of 125,000 Australian dollars ($89,000) in person because he was still confined to Manus. He was later moved to the capital, Port Moresby.

In New Zealand, Boochani will work as a senior adjunct research fellow at the University of Canterbury, the institution announced. Boochani said he’s been working with Indigenous Maori from the Ngai Tahu tribe.

One thorny issue could be whether Boochani is ever allowed to visit Australia.

Most New Zealanders are automatically allowed to visit, but Australia’s government has previously said they will never allow Boochani to set foot in the country. Australia has long maintained that asylum-seekers could use New Zealand citizenship as a backdoor to gain permanent entry to Australia.

Boochani said that although he has many friends and supporters in Australia, and has been working with folks at Australian universities, he has no desire to visit.

“I don’t think about this,” he said. “Why should I go to Australia? No, I am here.”

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