Behrouz Boochani
Refugee on Manus Island wins Australia's top literary prize
04:03 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

An award-winning Kurdish-Iranian journalist who was detained for six years in an offshore Australian immigration center has been formally granted refugee status in New Zealand.

Behrouz Boochani was sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) after arriving in Australian waters in 2013, under a government policy of detaining asylum seekers who arrived by boat.

While in detention, Boochani used his cellphone to write the book “No Friend But The Mountains,” which last year won the Victorian Prize for Literature – the country’s most lucrative literary award.

Boochani was informed Thursday that he had been granted refugee status in New Zealand. The date is significant – it marks his 37th birthday and seven years since he was placed on a naval ship while attempting to reach Australia.

“Now after exactly seven years, this story for me has finished. But of course my story is only a part of this whole story,” he told CNN from Christchurch.

Behrouz Boochani poses during a photo shoot on November 19, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It was a huge thing for me, because that made me feel stronger now and feel stable, feel that now I can be part of this society,” he said. “I have a place. So that was a great feeling.”

However, Boochani said it was difficult to completely enjoy his acceptance in New Zealand.

“On the other side, I always think about those people who are living in detention in Australia, in Port Moresby, in Nauru, which is really sad and makes me angry,” he said, referring to the PNG capital and the small Pacific island of Nauru, where other detainees were sent.

In a statement, Immigration New Zealand confirmed that Boochani had been given refugee status. CNN has reached out to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, which handles immigration in the country, for comment.

‘State sanctioned hostage-taking’

Boochani was detained on Manus Island after fleeing persecution in Iran in 2013.

The same year, the Australia government had announced that no asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be ever be settled in the country. They have had the option of settling in Nauru or on PNG, or returning to their home countries. Some have been accepted for resettlement in the US, under a deal struck with former US President Barack Obama.

Canberra says its tough border protection policies are necessary to avoid deaths at sea at the hands of people smugglers – but human rights groups have criticized the poor living conditions and high incidence of mental health problems among detainees.

While on Manus Island, Boochani became an outspoken critic of Australia’s refugee policies, calling himself and his fellow detainees victims of “state-sanctioned hostage-taking.”

As well as winning the Victorian Prize for Literature, Boochani’s book won the Non-Fiction Prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. He was awarded 125,000 Australian dollars (approximately $90,000) for the work that the award committee called “a cry of resistance.”

Boochani was granted limited entry into New Zealand last November to speak at a literary festival in Christchurch. Upon arrival, he lodged an application for protection.

Boochani said he is still in touch with some of his fellow detainees on Manus Island, and feels a responsibility to help fellow refugees. He is currently working on projects with Canterbury University in Christchurch where he is a research fellow, and is writing a short story collection – but not about Manus Island, he said.

‘A day for celebration’

Iranian-born New Zealand politician, Golriz Ghahraman – the first refugee to become member of parliament – welcomed Boochani in a tweet.

“Today Aotearoa is a place where fairness and compassion win,” she said, using the Maori word for New Zealand. “We stand together for freedom today.”

Executive Director of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, Meg de Ronde, said it was “wonderful to hear that New Zealand is offering him freedom and the chance to rebuild his life here.”

“Today is a day for celebration. Today is the first day in Behrouz’s life that he is free,” she said. “His commitment to freedom for every other person trapped in Australian detention is an example for us all.”

In June last year, UN human rights officials urged Australia to provide immediate medical aid to more than 800 asylum seekers and migrants being held offshore after a spate of suicide attempts.

There have been multiple cases of attempted suicide or self-harm on Manus Island, according to claims made by refugees and advocates, including Boochani. Human rights monitors such as Amnesty International have reported “hellish” conditions, abuse and neglect.

New Zealand has offered to resettle 150 refugees each year from Australia’s offshore detention centers, but Australia has refused to take up the offer.

Australian Home Minister Peter Dutton has said a New Zealand deal would be a “complete disaster,” as it would offer the detainees “backdoor” entry to Australia.

Rights groups say the government’s fears are unfounded.

“It’s time for Australia to accept the New Zealand offer,” de Ronde said.

CNN’s Sandi Sidhu and Angus Watson contributed to this story.