“The UK Will Be Enforcing A System Of Torture”: Human Rights Defender Behrouz Boochani Warns Against The Plan To Send Asylum Seekers To Rwanda
After requesting asylum in Australia, author Behrouz Boochani was sent to Manus Island detention centre in Papau New Guinea for six years. Today, he writes exclusively for Service95 from his home in New Zealand about why the torture he endured will be repeated by the UK government’s Rwanda policy
In 2013, my life as a writer and cultural activist in Iran became untenable. My work put me in the crosshairs of the government and when guards arrested some of my colleagues, I knew I had to leave.
My search for a safe place was not straightforward. I went to Indonesia but, once there, I discovered the police could deport me at any moment without explanation. So I travelled to Australia because I thought, once there, I would be safe. Instead, the country I hoped would protect me from harm deported me to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Here, under Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, I became a prisoner who was detained for more than six years and deprived of basic human rights.
Many people don’t know that the UK government’s recent announcement to forcibly transport asylum seekers to Rwanda is explicitly modelled on Australia’s refugee policy. In practice, it means people seeking asylum in the UK could be flown 4,500 miles to Rwanda and housed in camps while their asylum claims are considered. Meanwhile, they will be encouraged to ‘rebuild their lives’ in an authoritarian country with a dismal human rights record.
When the United Nations concluded in 2015 that Australia’s immigration policy was ‘systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture’, then prime minister, Tony Abbott, reacted angrily to the findings. But as someone who has experienced life as a refugee under Australian law, I am well aware of the horrific realities of the policy.
My nightmare began when I arrived at Christmas Island in a boat with other asylum seekers. There we were all arrested and, after a few weeks, banished to offshore prisons on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru. We were effectively taken hostage by the Australian government and prevented from applying to another country for asylum or transferring to Australia where we had requested asylum.
We were unable to access our rights under international law and criminalised through Australia’s domestic policy, which extended beyond its borders into Papua New Guinea and Nauru. We were never given a sentence by a court of law, nor any indication as to how long we would be imprisoned. You expect something to happen but after days, months, years – for some, a decade – nothing changes. It is a detention system that is a form of torture.
Family separation is one of the cruellest oppressions of indefinite detention. A male partner or relative might be detained on Manus Island and their partner, relative and/or children detained in Nauru or Australia. Children are often separated from siblings; one family member is removed to another detention prison or hospital for medical treatment and the rest of the family are left behind. Others are effectively separated through the life-long effects on children and the tragedy experienced by a parent witnessing their child grow up in prison.
The tools of torture used to enact this policy are systematic and multi-faceted. Sexual assault in the prison camps, especially for children, single women and young men is rife and enacted with impunity. Many, who fled their countries due to violent extremes of patriarchy, are now caught by a country that is supposed to protect them but instead imprisons them within a system that encourages further violation. Daily humiliations include the removal of all personal power over even the most intimate parts of life, medical neglect and lack of food and hygiene. On Manus Island and Nauru alone, 20 people have been killed through physical assault, lack of medical treatment, state-caused suicide and self-harm, and many more continue to die once they are off the islands.
I was eventually granted a temporary visa to New Zealand where I was able to secure asylum. Who knows what fate awaits those who are sent to Rwanda? Politicians in the UK are trying to manipulate the public by saying that they will ensure human rights are not violated. But that is untrue. They will be forcibly transporting refugees to a place that is very difficult for media and human rights organisations to gain access to. And so, just like Australia, the UK will be enforcing a system of torture on already displaced people.
For years many have warned that if the world remains silent about what Australia is doing, other countries will follow. As someone who experienced that brutal system and has long written about it, I say that the UK government is creating a tragedy. It is a tragedy that will sully its history forever.
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, human rights defender, writer and film producer. Janet Galbraith is the founder of Writing Through Fences, an online project that collaborates with artists and writers incarcerated in immigration detention, and edited this article