Years before the U.S.-Mexican border wall became a synonym for anti-immigration measures pursued at all cost, Australia embarked on its own, deeply divisive experiment. More than half a decade ago, Australia’s government decided that all migrants arriving in the country by boat should be placed in offshore detention camps outside of the country, on the Pacific Ocean island nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The detention practice have since drawn severe protests in Australia, backed by international institutions such as the U.N.’s human rights committee, which called the camps “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its human rights obligations.”
One of the asylum seekers who was detained there for years is the Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani – and, as of this week, the winner in absentia of the country’s prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature, worth over $70,000. The award puts an uncomfortable, renewed spotlight at the ongoing treatment of asylum seekers by the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea on behalf of Australia. The Australian government maintains that it is not responsible for migrants’ treatment in the processing centers.
“It’s an Australian story that as a nation we cannot be proud of, but it’s a story that cannot be ignored,” the Australian Human Rights Law Center wrote in a response to the award ceremony on Thursday.
Dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo” by its critics, the camp where Boochani was held was closed in 2017 after years of mounting pressure on Australia to end the controversial practice.
In his award-winning book, “No Friend but the Mountains,” Boochani wrote an inside look of the camp. Without a computer, he typed the book on his phone and shared it with a translator via WhatsApp. That way, he explained, camp guards were unable to detect and confiscate the documents.
Boochani, like many other refugees who were held in the now-closed camp, still involuntarily lives on Manus Island and can neither enter Australia nor return to his home country, Iran, where he fears prosecution over his work. Authorities in Australia made no exception for Thursday’s award ceremony in Melbourne, signaling that the current government stands by its controversial hardline stance on migration, even ahead of elections in May and a shift in public opinion toward a less radical approach.
“In some ways I am very happy because we are able to get attention to this plight and you know many people have become aware of this situation, which is great,” Boochani told the BBC. “But on the other side I feel that I don’t have the right to have celebration because I have many friends here who are suffering in this place.”
In theory, Australia’s immigration policy prioritizes skilled migrants and those needed on the labor market. But Australia’s doors are shut to anyone attempting to make that journey on a boat, without a proper visa. Australia’s then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull openly acknowledged that zero-tolerance approach in a phone call with President Trump in Jan. 2017, saying: “It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”
Despite calling the Australian approach a “good idea,” Trump nevertheless appears to be honoring a deal struck between Turnbull and his own predecessor, President Barack Obama, allowing some asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus island into the United States.
“You are worse than I am,” Trump told Turnbull at some point during their phone call, which was later leaked to The Washington Post.
Some human rights organizations would agree. The internment of children on Manus and Nauru, with many of them feared to suffer long-term mental health problems, helped critics of the Australian government’s practices build momentum against the camps after details of their suffering emerged in reports and public testimony. Speaking to The Washington Post last fall, Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne, said that some children in Nauru had been there for so long that they “have lost all hope to the point that they are no longer speaking or eating.”
While the government eventually agreed to evacuate most children and resettle some asylum seekers elsewhere, hundreds could not be resettled and the Nauru camp is still operational today.
Conditions on Manus island became so critical in 2017 that senior Australian doctors urged the government in Canberra to provide them access, writing: “‘We believe the humanitarian issues take precedence over politics. This is a matter beyond immigration and border control, but one that affects the health of people and others’ perceptions of our great nation.”
Human rights organizations dispute that sufficient steps were taken after those warnings. Doctors Without Borders condemned Australia’s treatment of migrants last December, writing in a report that the internment was having “a disastrous effect on their mental health, leading many to contemplate or attempt suicide.”
In his acceptance speech delivered via videolink on Thursday, Boochani said that literature had helped him get through the ordeal. “I have been in a cage for years but throughout this time my mind has always been producing words, and these words have taken me across borders, taken me overseas and to unknown places,” he said.
Even though Boochani says he was interviewed by officials and hopes that he might eventually be resettled to the United States, no such offer has been made, so far.
But in his speech on Thursday, Boochani remained optimistic. “I truly believe words are more powerful than the fences of this place, this prison.”