Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Although we’re often caught up in the inane, and are easily drawn into debate about the lighter sides of life such as reality tv and advice about drinking (guilty!), there are some things that bear much more significance and deserve far more attention than they are given.
A friend recently shared a video of Kurdish journalist and poet Behrouz Boochani singing a hauntingly beautiful song about the mountains of Kurdistan, taking him to memories of his homeland. His singing is evocative and melancholic as he sits under a tree, in peaceful surrounds, the anguish etched clearly in his face.
Boochani is a prisoner on Manus Island. He has been imprisoned there indefinitely for close to six years now, without any indication of the length of his sentence or the future of his plight. In his own words, this has been a deeply torturing experience for Boochani and more than 600 men just like him, currently detained without recourse, awaiting an answer – any answer, about their futures.
Like many of these men, Boochani is a highly educated man who worked as a freelance journalist in Iran, reporting on Middle Eastern politics and minority rights. He was the co-founder of a Kurdish magazine whose offices were stormed by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where many of his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned. Boochani managed to escape and went into hiding before bravely fleeing Iran and making attempts to seek asylum in Australia.
Unfortunately, his boat was intercepted and he was met with a cruel set of circumstances that ultimately led to his imprisonment on Manus Island.
Remarkably, Boochani’s creative spirit has not waned under the duress of his confinement, and he has shared with the world his experiences of torture and captivity on Manus Island. He has written many articles and poems published around the world, from his beleaguered home behind the prison walls.
Most incredibly of all, he wrote a memoir that he delivered piece by piece through Whatsapp to a translator off the island, that was published in May of 2018.
In January of this year, his memoir No Friend But The Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison was awarded both Australia’s richest literary prize, the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. This is an extraordinary feat for any writer, let alone one who is writing from a place of detainment and is not an Australian citizen.
As Behrooz stated in his very moving acceptance speech, these awards prove that the power of words is still very much alive, and demonstrated the importance of sharing these dark and disturbing realities with the world.
However, Behrooz’s exceptional work and support from the literary community has not yet changed his personal circumstances. He and all of the men still stranded on Manus Island continue to live without resolution to their plight. Many of these men are extremely unwell and do not have access to medical care or aide.
There are similar things happening on Nauru. Refugees are being denied access to medical care and many have become actively suicidal. Recently, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), sent out an email asking for support from mental health and legal professionals willing to volunteer their time to people who had become critically unwell as a result of their circumstances. As a result, psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers from Melbourne have since been providing their services pro bono to assist in the safe repatriation of as many of these people as possible. This has led to the successful removal of several refugees from imprisonment to relative safety in other countries. There they have been able to receive the psychological and medical care they are not receiving on Nauru.
Tonight, the House of Representatives voted in support of doctor-initiated medical transfers to Australia for all asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. If approved by the Senate, this will allow doctors to make the decision about a person’s need for medical transfer to Australia, after following a three step process; assessing their need for medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment, determining they are not receiving either appropriately and as a result, that they require a transfer for appropriate medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment to occur.
While this has certainly been encouraging, there is some way to go before any action can be taken.
There is still a long way to go on Manus overall, as many innocent men remain imprisoned under Australia’s jurisdiction. Men who have found themselves in a shockingly desperate situation after being left with no option but to flee their own countries. Men who have children. Men who have families. Professional men. Creative men. Frightened men. Men who are people, just like we are.
The refugee crisis raises contentious arguments and political backlash in both the media and in personal discussions. It is critical that we remember we are talking about real people, who continue to face immeasurable grief and trauma each day as we debate what is “right”, over our wine and cheese or lattes in the morning.
Behrooz Bouchani is an inspiration as a writer and as a public face of the continuing injustices on Manus Island. Both he and the remaining men abandoned by our government deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity.