Refugee and author Behrouz Boochani has left Papua New Guinea, more than six years after being sent there as part of Australia’s offshore processing scheme, and says he has no plans to return.
Mr Boochani received a visitor’s visa to travel to Christchurch, New Zealand to speak at a literary event about his award-winning book, No Friend but the Mountains, and he is not ruling out claiming asylum in the country.
The former Manus Island detainee received temporary travel documents and permission from the PNG Immigration Department to travel to NZ for the event, which is run by Word Christchurch.
At Port Moresby’s international airport before boarding his plane, Mr Boochani said he was “happy he survived”.
He told the ABC he was not planning to head back to PNG.
‘The important thing for me is to start a new life’
Mr Boochani has recently been accepted for resettlement in the United States and said he was investigating whether he could fly from NZ to the US once the process was completed.
Many refugees have waited several months to travel to the US after being accepted.
I just arrived in New Zealand. So exciting to get freedom after more than six years. I have been invited by Word Festival in Christchurch and will participate in an event here. Thank you to all the friends who made this happen.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 14, 2019
“This process is very slow and it’s not clear, we don’t know how long it will take,” Mr Boochani said.
“Right now in Port Moresby, there are many people who have been waiting to depart to the US.
“I really don’t trust in this process. I don’t trust in this system.”
He said he may apply for asylum in NZ.
“First, I would like to just spend some time as a free man, but after that I will look at that – is it possible that I go to the US from New Zealand? Or I should stay there?
“I don’t think about this a lot. What is important is that I leave, and it is the end of this chapter for me.
“The important thing for me is to start a new life, somewhere I feel safe.”
Another refugee from Manus Island, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, travelled to Switzerland to receive a human rights award.
Mr Muhamat later applied for and was granted asylum in the country.
We are unbelievable excited, and slightly stunned, to announce a very special event on 29 November. An evening, live, with the incredible @BehrouzBoochani https://t.co/JfQ4ITjWwL pic.twitter.com/pz6htE7SWu
— WORD Christchurch (@WORDChCh) November 14, 2019
NZ has a long-standing offer to accept 150 refugees from Manus and Nauru, but it has not been accepted by the Australian government, which has raised concerns it could create a “back door” to access Australia.
Mr Boochani said he was not concerned about the reaction from Australia if he claimed asylum in NZ.
“It’s better for them to [not get involved], to let me go. I think it’s better for them.”
He also said he felt he had a lot of support in NZ, especially from its universities.
About 1300 people were originally sent to the Manus detention centre.
In 2016, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus was illegal and the centre was closed the following year.
The men were then moved into accommodation facilities in the main town, Lorengau, and allowed to move around the province.
Mr Boochani became an outspoken advocate for the asylum seekers and a critic of the offshore processing system, writing numerous articles and producing a film.
He then wrote a book, via text message, which won Australia’s richest literary prize, the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature.
The ABC understands about 260 refugees and non-refugees remain in PNG, and the overwhelming majority have been moved to Port Moresby, in order to bring an end to asylum-seeker processing on Manus.
The Australian Department of Home Affairs has previously said: “Australia will continue to support PNG’s efforts to resolve the regional-processing caseload through resettlement, returns and removals.”
It said refugees not accepted to resettle in the US could settle in PNG or engage in private sponsorship pathways to go to other countries.
About 50 refugees have taken up the offer to settle in PNG since processing began.
Human rights groups worry about new detention centre
In August, more than 50 men found to be non-refugees were taken to a new detention centre in Port Moresby, which was funded by the Australian government.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement saying the men were being kept “virtually incommunicado” which they said raised “serious concerns about their health and safety”.
The human rights groups said the men were being denied access to phones and prevented from contacting their families and lawyers, and called for them to be released.
They said several of the men deemed non-refugees had never had their applications fully heard because they withdrew from the process for various reasons.
An Australian Senate inquiry heard doctors and lawyers had lost contact with medevac clients who had been detained at the facility.
PNG’s Immigration and Citizenship Authority previously said a “high standard of health, security and support services” were being provided at the centre and the men could access telephones.
It said “the non-refugees are unlawful” and “have no right to remain in our country”.
Home Affairs has said the “management of unlawful non-citizens at the Bomana Immigration Centre is a matter for the PNG government”.
“The Papua New Guinea government has advised it has engaged a medical service provider to ensure that those failed asylum seekers that are detained by the Papua New Guinea government receive necessary medical services,” it said in a statement.