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Behrouz Boochani: Freedom, Only Freedom

Behrouz Boochani

They banished us, they tortured us, they dehumanised us, but we fought back.

Behrouz Boochani

Kurdish-Iranian refugee and award-winning writer Behrouz Boochani delivered the 2022 Wallace Wurth Lecture at UNSW Sydney on Tuesday 13 December, sharing why a human narrative is integral to fighting Australia’s current refugee policies. Boochani, who is an adjunct associate professor at UNSW, spent over six years in offshore immigration detention in Manus Detention Centre, where he and his fellow asylum seekers endured conditions that violated international refugee law.
His new book, Freedom, Only Freedom, is a collection of his prison writings, translated and edited by his long-time translators and collaborators Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi. Mr Boochani's work is combined with essays from experts on migration, refugee rights, politics, and literature.
Following an introduction by Sarah Dale (RACS), Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi, Boochani is in conversation with human rights lawyer Madeline Gleeson sharing his stories of resilience and shed light on the shameful refugee policies that the Australian government continues to endorse.

Freedom, Only Freedom can be purchased here. 

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Refugee Advice & Casework Service.


The Wallace Wurth Lecture was first held in 1964 to commemorate the memory of the late Wallace Charles Wurth, the first Chancellor of UNSW Sydney (at the time known as the New South Wales University of Technology) and first President of the Council of the University. The first Wallace Wurth Lecture was delivered by the then Prime Minister of Australia, the Right Honourable Sir Robert Menzies and recent acclaimed speakers include Gail Kelly, Stan Grant and Daniel Dennett.  


UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The conversation you are about to hear, Behrouz Boochani: Freedom, Only Freedom, features Behrouz Boochani, his translators and collaborators Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi, along with human rights lawyers Madeline Gleeson and Sarah Dale, and was recorded live.

Sarah Dale: Good evening, everyone. And welcome to tonight's event, the 2022 Wallace Wurth lecture, Behrouz Boochani: Freedom, Only freedom. My name is Sarah Dale and I am the Centre Director and Principal Solicitor of the refugee advice and casework service RACS. Our community legal centre, kindly hosted by UNSW, at the top of this hill, dedicated to supporting people seeking asylum, refugees, the stateless and displaced.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the traditional custodians of this land. I would also like to pay my respects to their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are here with us today. Acknowledging that their sovereignty was never ceded, always was always will be Aboriginal land. Tonight's event is the UNSW’s Wallace Wurth lecture, which was first held in 1964, to commemorate the memory of the late Wallace Charles Wurth, the first chancellor of UNSW Sydney, and the first president of the Council of the University. I would like to welcome the Wurth family who are here with us tonight.

Audience applause

Tonight, we have the privilege of finally welcoming Behrouz Boochani to Sydney to celebrate the release of his new book Freedom, Only Freedom. Freedom, Only Freedom is a collection of essays which features prison writings of Behrouz, intertwined with pieces authored by academics, journalists, experts, and others also impacted by Australia's offshore processing regime. To share their observations of this most disturbing system. The collection is compiled, translated and edited by his longtime translators and collaborators Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi, whom I also welcome to UNSW this evening.

Audience applause

The rights and dignities of people seeking asylum and refugees have decayed before us all, within a legal system that claims to protect those most vulnerable within our society. Power structures have embedded silence and deliberate decisions are made by those structures to ensure the isolation of those experiences, to ensure that the suffering we as a nation have inflicted upon people cannot be seen, cannot be heard, cannot be recorded. For those stuck in this system, repeatedly they have been told it cannot be done. Behrouz, supported by Moones and Omid, have exemplified the human spirit, the strength, the allyship, which knows no bounds and cannot be curtailed by this systemic oppression. If only we stand and speak together. Their work over these years has ensured the human narrative is shared. And for those that have advocated for and defended the rights of those impacted by these inhumane and egregious systems, such pieces of literature and pieces of work could not be more important. I am humbled beyond words to share the stage with them all tonight.

Tonight we will commence with introductions from Omid and Moones. We will then hear from Behrouz who will be in conversation with Madeline Gleason. Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi have worked tirelessly translating and consulting with Behrouz Boochani on many awarded, recognised pieces of writing and journalism. Most notably, and I'm sure you've all brought your copies with you tonight. No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature In addition to the non-fiction category. No Friend But the Mountains also won the special award at the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, the Australian Book Industry Award and the National Biography Prize. Moones’ work with Behrouz also saw their receipt of the Amnesty Media Award in 2017. Omid Tofighian is an award winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate. Combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, popular culture, displacement and discrimination. He is the adjunct professor at the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW. And an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck Law, University of London. Moones Mansoubi is a community arts and cultural development worker based in Sydney, dedicated to supporting and collaborating with migrants and people seeking asylum in Australia. Moones has a master's degree in International Relations, and is passionate about social justice and social cohesion. Moones is the coordinator of the Community Refugee Welcome Center in Inner Western Sydney, which is a place I have a really strong place in my heart for, and as a content producer for SBS radio in the Persian program. It is my absolute pleasure to welcome them both to the stage for a short address.

Moones Mansoubi: Thank you very much Sarah for your kind words. We would also like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay our respects to elder's past, and present. Adding greater context to the theme discussed in the book. I am sure you all know what is currently happening in Iran. Civil uprising of the Iranian people has the most human slogan, Jin, Jîyan, Azadî, ژن، ژیان، ئازادی, woman, life, freedom. And the philosophy behind this includes struggle, resistance, resignation, and existence of women, and all suppressed human beings. Every day, we wake up with horrendous news of murder, torture, imprisonment, and the brutal crackdown of protesters and our hearts are shattered into pieces. I wonder why the international community is not taking effective action, how many more lives should be lost and how many more people should suffer due to grave human rights violations by the Islamic regime of Iran.

Omid Tofighian: Just yesterday, there was the second execution of protesters arrested during the uprising, we’re really devastated. Behrouz, Moones, me, we feel for the people back home, and also for the people who have family back home living outside of Iran. It's really hard to experience, hard to feel joy at this moment, especially with Behrouz here, a new book out. And all of you to enjoy that with, to celebrate with. It's hard to feel the joy, hard to really contemplate the gravity of something like this. And we're also inspired by the unity in the Iranian diaspora and of course, the bravery of Iranians in Iran standing up to state violence. I'd like to draw your attention to a very important group here doing extremely valuable work, necessary work. United Action for Iran is a group of community organisations who are doing fantastic work and need to be supported. Collaborating with people within Iran and in other countries. Also the National Assembly of Iranian jurists. On the page, the web page for United Action for Iran, under Act Now, you'll find a letter, a very important letter to sign. Please begin with that. And please get in touch, engage with us, and find out how we can support people in those situations.

Moones Mansoubi: The Australian Government delays permanent resettlement of thousands of refugees who fled this regime, people languishing in limbo for many years. It is unacceptable and cruel that the Australian Government is causing immeasurable suffering for thousands of refugees, instead of providing them with protection and safety. What other evidence do they need? Well, back to here. It's a great pleasure for us to be here tonight to speak about Freedom, Only Freedom. Freedom reminds me of many occasions. But one of the occasions that is relevant to this topic is the footage of offshore detention centre, people chanting, “What do we want? Freedom.” The book is an important snapshot of the impact of the offshore detention policy from varying perspectives. It is a testament to the power of individual voices as agents of change without the backing of the representative body. This completion of the work is a valuable record of these voices, their contribution to this chapter of history, and a central catalyst for further discussion. And Behrouz brought this discussion to the discourse in an astonishing way.

Omid Tofighian: I’ve referred to Behrouz’s work as an anti-genre. Throughout his writing and our collaborations, which are about extreme situations and experiences. There is a quality that feels unreal and seems impossible to represent the grotesque nature of the border industrial complex. In particular, the extent of border violence within Australia's immigration detention industry is clear. This reality is addressed explicitly in Freedom, Only Freedom, in both Behrouz’s writing, and the articles by contributors. But there is a surreal element perpetually penetrating the real experiences. There is a perverse psychological horror, pervading the lived experience of detention, and also the collaboration, or the collaborative work that we do together. There is a strangeness engaging in this work is necessary and urgent, but it also feels impossible to grasp, always out of reach. There is something twisted about every aspect, what is it? Behrouz has talked about the soul of the system. Is this feeling evoked by that? Maybe. How do we represent it? This new book, like, No Friend, But the Mountains and other works, answers these questions.

Moones Mansoubi: Behrouz worked tirelessly when he was on Manus Island to reveal and interpret this cruel policy in the most dignified way. And our collaborative approach just worked well. This is a journey that has taken place since 2014. A journey, which Behrouz started and led. And our network has been growing every day to fight against the system that instead of putting humanity at the core, put politics, racism and discrimination first.

Omid Tofighian: Behrouz’s creative resistance is a scathing critique of border violence. He also explores more philosophical questions about situations that feel unbelievable, strange, surreal. These dimensions are central to the new book, there is a desperate need for a new narrative and a new language. A language of freedom. One that empowers displaced and exiled peoples, and one that functions to make systemic change and sustainable transformations. And also a language that presents a more comprehensive picture of the kinds of oppression, domination and subjugation taking place, a narrative through which we can better understand our own vicinity or proximity to power and violence. A new narrative, and a new language can help unravel the horrific and surreal qualities of the border industrial complex.

Moones Mansoubi: I am very delighted that finally the three of us are here tonight, along with many other colleagues and friends that we have been working with collaboratively during the past nine years. Many of them with lived experience. But still I have a lump in my throat. Refugees are still in detention, onshore and offshore. Many refugees in the community are stuck in the system for years and years here in Australia, being deprived of basic rights. This is an unsettling feeling which shows our mission has yet not been accomplished.

Omid Tofighian: But also the book, the new book is about hope, joy, celebration, pride and love as political acts.

Moones Mansoubi: And we want to acknowledge all the contributors of Freedom, Only Freedom. It has been such an honour for us working with them all. They address the pivotal themes and issues covered in Behrouz work, Omid Tofighian’s introduction to the book details many of these features.

Omid Tofighian: Moones Mansoubi examines both the writing and translation process.

Moones Mansoubi: Ben Dougherty examines the unique form of journalism produced.

Omid Tofighian: Jordana Silverstein explores the importance of a historical approach.

Moones Mansoubi: Sajad Kabgani engages with post-humanist discourse.

Omid Tofighian: Roza Germian engages with modern Kurdish writing and journalism.

Moones Mansoubi: Anne McNevin discusses knowledge production.

Omid Tofighian: Victoria Canning discusses the experience of systematic torture.

Moones Mansoubi: Shaminda Kanapathi depicts his experience of shared struggle in Manus.

Omid Tofighian: Erik Jensen provides reflections on transcending borders through writing.

Moones Mansoubi: Elahe Zivardar and Mehran Ghadiri deliver a commentary about the Nauru Context.

Omid Tofighian: Fatima Measham addresses embodiment and the environment.

Moones Mansoubi: Mahnaz Alimardanian explores the exploitation of Manus Island and its people.

Omid Tofighian: Helen Davidson reflects on political economy and corruption.

Moones Mansoubi: Claudia Tazreiter explains hope as a political act.

Omid Tofighian: Steven Ratuva explores trans-cultural imaginaries against incarceration.

Moones Mansoubi: Lida Amiri explains Behrouz theologic approach and collective activism.

Omid Tofighian: Anne Surma provides critical reflections on poetics and narrative.

Moones Mansoubi: Arianna Grasso offers us important analysis about social media, and finally Helena Zeweri critiques colonial legacies.

Omid Tofighian: Also, thank you to Tara June Winch for writing the foreword. The publisher Rory Gormley and Bloomsbury.

Moones Mansoubi: Jin, Jîyan, Azadî, ژن، ژیان، ئازادی, woman, life, freedom, thank you for your time.

Sarah Dale: Thank you so much. Moones and Omid. I think, before this event, we were out the back and we were discussing the importance of language. And how many of people in this room will speak multiple languages and how myself can only speak one, and how illiterate I feel. But I think every single person in this audience all speaks the one language, and that's freedom. And so thank you for sharing that with us tonight Omid and Moones.

And now in a real pinch yourself moment, I'm about to invite to this stage Behrouz Boochani. Behrouz last arrived in Australia almost nine years ago, reduced to a six digit identifier of MEG045 and forcibly transferred to Manus Island, where he was held for six years, and bore witness to and lived under repeated atrocities and harrowing human rights abuses, all in the name of Operation Sovereign Borders. Despite being told he would never be permitted to enter Australia. He arrives here today on this stage, on his own terms. An award winning author, an accomplished journalist, esteemed filmmaker, and respected cultural advisor and advocate. Behrouz was a writer and editor for a Kurdish language magazine before arriving in Australia. He is a visiting professor at Birkbeck Law School, Associate Professor in Social Sciences at UNSW, honorary member of PEN International, and winner of the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018, Empty Chair Award, and many other accolades for his journalism. Australia's arbitrary immigration system would have only had you know him as a statistic, as a single adult man detained. But Behrouz’s conviction ensured we knew him as a voice, as a writer, as an academic, as a human. It is my great honour to welcome to the stage Madeline Gleeson, human rights lawyer, refugee rights expert of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, to commence this evening's conversation with one of the most instrumental changemakers of this time, Behrouz Boochani.

Audience applause

Madeline Gleeson: Good evening, and thank you everyone for being here tonight to hear live from Behrouz, together with Omid and Moones, delivering the 2022 Wallace Wurth lecture. Anyone who is familiar with Behrouz’s work will understand the affinity that he feels with Indigenous peoples and storytellers, be they Kurdish, Australian or Manutian, so it's with particular care tonight that we acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, unceded territory of the Bidjigal people and pay our respects to their elders, past and present. Please also join me in paying respect to Behrouz and all of the other survivors of Australia's offshore processing regime, some of whom might be with us here tonight in the audience. And also to friends lost along the way. Raisa, Sayed, Hamid, Omid, Raqib Camille, Faysal, Hamid, Rajiv, Jangir, Salim, Faribos, Sayed, Abdiraman. We invite you now to join us for a minute of silence in memory of those who died or were killed in the course of offshore processing.

Minute of Silence

Madeline Gleeson: Six years ago, I sat on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival where there was a PEN Empty Chair for you Behrouz. And for those of you who don't know, the PEN International Empty Chair is used at events to symbolise writers who cannot be there in person because they are imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. So we should not have been up there on that stage speaking for you and your experiences, but at that time you were locked away in the Manus prison. So it's with great excitement today that I share the stage with you, you can occupy your own seat, and speak to us tonight about this fantastic new book, Freedom, Only Freedom, welcome Behrouz.

Audience applause

Behrouz Boochani: Thank you very much. It is such a great honour to be here. So it's not the first event that we do here in person. So we did an event last night in Melbourne. When I am on the stage, actually, I think about the first day that I arrived in Christmas Island. And on that day, when I arrived, I just had the book of poetry with myself. And in Christmas Island, when they wanted to banish me alongside others to Manus Island, I told them that I'm a writer, but they didn't believe, or they didn't care, or they didn't believe in the power of words and writing. So when I'm on the stage, I think about that time, that moment, and later on when I smuggled a phone into the prison camp, and I started to communicate with people in Australia. I didn't know anyone in Australia. And after that, I met some others through the internet. And later on with Janet Galbraith with Ben Dougherty, with people who I have had this chance to work with them. But we are witnessing, or we have witnessed a tragedy, a tragedy created by [the] Australian government, but I'm not really going to carry this tragedy with myself in rest of my life. I think my duty, or our duty, or mission, is to work, that Australia accepts the responsibility and take this tragedy and we put it on the Australian shoulders to carry it. It's a tragedy that through this tragedy, refugees have been resisting and fighting back this system. If you imagine two islands, very, very tiny island in the middle of Pacific Ocean, and a huge island, a continent, which is Australia. Just compare these two islands. So they banished us, they torture us, they dehumanised us, but we fight them back. And I think I'm here to remind of people of Australia to recognise that fight, to recognise that resistance, and through this resistance that we did, we have done with our bodies, with our works, we create the resistance knowledge. And that is important. Australia should learn from that resistance knowledge, which created by refugees, and people who have been working with refugees, and this book is just a part of this resistance knowledge, or this body of works. Yeah, thank you.

Madeline Gleeson: So tonight, Behrouz and I are going to be in conversation with a few questions. And later on, there'll be a time for your questions to come to Behrouz as well. So please think about what you might wish to put to him to discuss. In addition, we particularly welcome questions from people with lived experience of displacement, especially people with lived experience of offshore processing. So Behrouz, this fantastic book contains not only your prison writings, but as we've heard, the contributions of a whole group of people. Perhaps we'll start by asking, why this book? Why is it important? And how do you understand where it fits within your broader body of work, including No Friend But the Mountains and also Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. How does this body of work fit together?

Behrouz Boochani: I should say that I liked this book, probably more than the first one. So many of articles. So we didn't include all of the articles. But also there are some work that I didn't publish before. So this was this articles, I think, I look at the policy, I look at the detention system or prison system, from different aspects, different perspectives. So we have articles about Indigenous people on Manus Island that no one really thinks about them or care about them. But this tragedy happened on their land, they use their land as a cage, as the land of exile. So I've been writing about that. And also, I should mention the movie Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time that I think it's mostly about Manutian people, or some articles about some stories about individuals, some detainees that I try to make them visible, through writing. That people feel them, people connect with them, or people who have been killed, and also some political articles that how we analyse this system, you know, politically. So that's why I think if we look at this book, it's like a history of that prison camp, or history of that policy. So that's why I think, is important. I didn't ask for the first book, I didn't ask that people should buy that. But for this one I, yeah, I think…

Audience laughter

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, I think people should have a copy of this, especially in Australia, because, you know, it's a part of history. And I'm really sorry to say that I'm using the word history, because it still is going on. Still, this is going on. Yeah, we shouldn't actually use that word, history. But I think we will, we can look at these books from different perspectives.

Madeline Gleeson: Well, I wholeheartedly endorse that call to buy a copy, and they will be available after the event, in the foyer. You really do bring to life a number of the people that you represent there, I felt like I knew them. I felt like I was there, which is pretty extraordinary given it was such a parallel universe. But the creation of this text is beautiful. Perhaps we could speak a bit about the collaboration process between yourself, Omid and Moones. Is it right that you are texting your writings to them from WhatsApp a little bit at a time? And is that how that worked? And what's the process like that for you? And what's the value of translators in producing a work like this?

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, I should say that. So having fun was illegal, definite, Manus prison. So I smuggled phone in. And I started to communicate that I said, so for two years, I didn't publish anything under my name, because I didn't feel safe with the authorities. So I had to make sure that I have enough network or I have a strong network that if something happened for me, they pay costs, you know, so after two years, so I, I think the first article that I published under my name was translated by Moones, and then we work together for, after that Omid read an article, which translated by Moones, and he communicated came with me, so we started to work together. And I think that is really important that we, I say that, that I couldn't do all of these works without them. And because, of course, writing English still is difficult for me. It's not. It's not my first language. And I say that to you that I'm quite old to learn a new language very well. Yeah, but yeah, we have been working on and I think we have been sharing intellectual ideas as well, you know, so through our conversation, our dialogues that we were sending voice messages, I think we help each other to understand that system better and deeply. And even that intellectual conversation and dialogue helped me to survive as well. I think that was very important. When you are living in a system in a prison camp, which is designed to dehumanise you, when you have such a conversation, you feel that you bring your dignity back. And that is, I think, important, you know, in that context.

Madeline Gleeson: And it's a beautiful product, the work of the three of you. Now, we've spoken before about how as a Kurdish man, you've struggled with marginalisation, and discrimination in some form all of your life. You were resisting before you fled to Australia, and you've been resisting in another way ever since. Your good friend Tara June Winch, who writes in the book, the foreword, she writes that your work is part of a movement of resistance knowledge, it is a screen in response to the settler colonial canon. What is resistance writing and resistance knowledge creation to you? And how does that play out in this book?

Behrouz Boochani: I think sometimes I said that even we can resist through the way we dress you know. So that resistance always is there. For me as a Kurdish man that you mentioned, in Kurdistan, we Kurdish people have been fighting, you know, for decades in Middle East, and that created a resistance knowledge. And that resistance knowledge exists in our poetry, our literature, our recently mostly in cinema, and you know, in many cultural elements that we have, and political. So Kurdistan resistance knowledge or approach, is a radical approach. You know, Kurdistan, Kurdish people wants to create a radical change, you know, not only for themselves, but for the whole region. And I think that became a part of our culture, became a part of our identity. So when I came to Australia, and they banished me to Manus Island, I faced another system, opera system, a colonialism system. And I think that my Kurdish background and that knowledge helped me to fight that system and push it. But for me, actually, resistance in this context must happen in language, that how we create our concepts, our words, our language, you know, a kind of language that we be able to fight the system. That's why in my journalism works, I didn't follow the official journalism language, this language that we know. So I'm quite against mainstream. But I'm not comfortable on mainstream yet.

Madeline Gleeson: Well, one of the ways in which your work resists is by resisting against the dehumanisation. And almost every chapter of this book details a new and increasingly brutal form of dehumanisation, or treatment. First you lost your name, you became MEG045. And you write that after that your name was of no use. Then you and others were ferried like pieces of flesh across the tarmac to the plane that would take you to Papua New Guinea. And that's a particularly moving description, that chapter, it opens the book and it's quite shocking from the beginning. Moones describes an attempt to scratch the human face from the discourse, and you write about profound and annihilating torture and how hope and time are weaponised. Can you talk to us about how through your work you fought back against that dehumanisation, and sought to reclaim your identity as a writer, as a journalist, as a cultural advocate, as a human.

Behrouz Boochani: I think as a minority or marginalised people, the first thing that we should do, the first step is to decolonise ourselves. That is, I think it's very important because that operating system that we internalise that, you know, and it's very difficult. When they dehumanise you, you internalise that. So, you, first your duty is to fight that, you know, be aware of that. And decolonise yourself, I think that is very important. But in my work, I try to show the, like, bring the humanity back, the humanity, the face of refugees back, you know, and show that, you know? And that doesn't mean that we describe refugees as an angel, you know? So refugees are human beings, like others, so that doesn't mean that we create that, you know? Just real humans, like others, you know, so no one is perfect. But generally, I think is, that doesn't happen only in writing, you know, when you live in that prison camp, or in that context, you can fight that back in different ways, you know, singing, to be creative performance, having performance, humour, you know? All of that, when you do that you actually challenge that system, that first reminds of you that you are a human being, you know, and you challenge that system. So I mean, art, artistic, art language is the most powerful language to do that. And many people in Manus, it's not necessary that they will write, they create their own way to keep their dignity alive. Yeah.

Madeline Gleeson: And you do a wonderful job in the book of describing some, some great people. First of all, you give them names. So we're not giving the six digit ID anymore. They've got their names, you talk about who they are, their families back home, as you say, they're not essentialised, as angels. Some of them are complex characters. But it is a glimpse into the people that made up that camp. Of course, offshore processing isn't the only thing which has constrained your identity into a box over the years. We've spoken before about the constraints of the refugee label, or box, and how even now settled in New Zealand, it sometimes dominates how people see you. Then there's the added layer of being a so-called celebrity refugee, and the huge pressure on your shoulders now to be the name and the face of the resistance, especially for those who are still waiting for a safe settlement option. You've described yourself as a case study for academics and researchers and expressed frustration that some in the media saw you as just a source, and initially refuse to recognise you as a journalist in your own right. So there's all of these ways in which these labels and boxes are still exercising a form of control over you. How does your identity, your past, your experiences, shape how you're engaging with these labels and boxes and trying to break out of them now?

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, it's very difficult. And I think that is a Western mentality to keep minorities, marginalised people, Indigenous people, in a box, you know, and they create that box for you, and you should stay in that box. But they are allowed to write about anything or, you know, that's why I had an event in Christchurch. Someone asked me, "what is your next project?" I said, "I don't know. But probably a love story, which happened in Switzerland."

And he said, "why?" I said, "because, you know, because of my background as a refugee". Everyone expects that always I write about refugees, but I'm allowed to write about anything that I want. And also, before I come to Australia, I lived in Iran for 25, six years, seven years, I forget. So I mean that, that is a Western mentality, that first they deny your background, and then they put you in a box, but that doesn't mean that I get away of that background. You know, that as a refugee. I think that is very important, I think I should work. I feel like it is a duty that we create more work, you know, create some knowledge. But that doesn't mean that I just stay in that box. But breaking that box is so difficult. It's almost impossible in the West, you know? And the last thing that I remember in Iran, you know, so I've been enrolling in the current protests in Iran, and I left Iran because of that, you know? Because of politics because of that dictatorship system. But the way the media have been approaching me was different. They forget that I can, I'm able to talk about politics in Iran, you know, and sometimes they approached me, and they were looking for a number for someone that was not relevant to the issue. So I mean, that mentality, I think it's very, it's very difficult to challenge that, you know, but, and if you challenge that, if you break that box, you come out from the box, after a while they put you in that box again, because they used to, that mentality, used to that image. So they don't want to see you out of that box. If you be out of the box, make them uncomfortable. That's why I say that, I'm sorry to make you uncomfortable. But I'm here to make you uncomfortable. You know?

Madeline Gleeson: That’s what we're all here for tonight. 

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah. 

Madeline Gleeson: And I'm sure we'd agree that perhaps the burden or the responsibility for challenging that way of thinking about boxes, probably lies on all of us that have that Western way of thinking, not always so much on you to try and break out of it for the rest of us to reflect on that. We're going to turn to audience questions soon. So please do continue to bring them through the Slideo. But before we turn to that, can we look away from Australia for a moment and turn back to discuss what's happening in Iran? And thank you to Omid and Moones for starting tonight's events with those discussions. Adding to what's been said already, where does the woman, life, freedom slogan come from? What does it represent? And what's happening right now that we need to know about?

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, the woman, life, freedom. So in code, this is Jin, Jîyan, Azadî, that comes from a long resistance, history of resistance in Kurdistan. So at least for two decades, Kurdish people have been fighting with this manifesto. So it's like a manifesto. But during the protests, so Gina, who was killed, she was Kurdish. And the process has started from Kurdistan. And this slogan from that time, people of Tehran and other cities respond to that. So they just take it from Kurdistan, that that was really a beautiful moment, you know, a very beautiful moment in Iran that that slogan, in some way, was flying, you know, around the country, and everyone, and now, it became a manifesto. And now, people around the world hear about this slogan. But what is important, really, that we understand history of this. You know? So that radicalism that I was talking about, that happened in Kurdistan created this slogan. So we should understand that, you know, we cannot just take the slogan and just use it, you know, but of course, in Iran, I think what is important, that we should mention, that this movement, this revolution has different layers. Of course, it’s led by women, and that is a big achievement already. But this revolution has different layers as well. But it's really important, and it's a big achievement that people of Iran from different backgrounds, they have been united. But that didn't happen before. It's since the revolution of 1979. So hopefully, this brings change. Of course, the biggest dream for people of Iran is just regime collapse and create a new system. So that is the whole thing that we can say about this.

Madeline Gleeson: Thank you. All right. Well as the microphones are coming forward, I'll invite anyone who wants to ask a question to do so. And as mentioned, could you please give priority to anyone who has lived experience of displacement, just perhaps check behind you in the line if there's anyone that should perhaps go first. We've also got the questions coming in from Slido. And one, which we often receive, is a question about what Australians can do to better advocate for just and humane refugee policies. And this is a question of real  importance, so it'd be great to get your thoughts on it. And perhaps you could also speak to the risks of white saviour complex and of celebrating individual celebrity cases while leaving untouched the architecture that underlies the cruel policies.

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, I think what I see in Australia in this context is sometimes annoying. It's not annoying, actually it makes me angry. Which is, I don't know why this country pretends that something has changed. So I should say that we are facing an industry here, you know, this detention industry, and this detention industry, media are a part of it, the government is a part of it, politicians are a part of it, even human rights organisations are a part of it, I am a part of it. You know? They created the industry that everyone… if you even fight that, you still are a part of that, you know? So that industry exists, that industry has roots, you know? And it's developed, you know, in this country. But sometimes people pretend that something changed. When they keep the refugees, some individual refugees, in a prison camp for like two years, three years, five years. Each year, we have some cases that become a national issue and media, I don't know, human rights, organisations, people, politicians, they fight, they argue that something is going on and going on, and in the end, they release that refugee and become a national celebration. But at the same time, hundreds of people are in detention. Same cases, same situation, same background, and people just celebrate that.

Madeline Gleeson: So what would you like to see happen? 

Behrouz Boochani: That is white saviour culture. People think… they feel they want to feel good about themselves. They want to feel that oh, we created change. We did something. We release the, like, Bioela family, so let's celebrate that. And at the same time, hundreds of people are in detention. No one cares about that. So that is the main question. I don't understand this.

Audience Applause

Madeline Gleeson: We have a really pertinent question from the audience on that point, saying that quite a few Albanese government ministers were in the Rudd Government when it announced that no one arriving by boat after 19 July 2013, could settle permanently in Australia. So in this time, we're in now we're seeing some of the same decision makers, as saw this policy come in. How can we break their ongoing support for offshore processing? 

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, you know that is the main question, actually. So I was saying on the ABC program, I say that they gave me a visa that I come here, that they threaten that something changed. But I'm here to say nothing changed. They have taken photo with Bioela family, with other refugees, they have done something, but actually that system exists. Still 200 People are in Port Moresby on Nauru. Still there are hundreds of people in detention. And these people who come here on the Medevac law, they receive a letter that you don't have a future in this country and thousands and thousands of people, I think, at least the last number, I know 22,000 people who have been here for more than a decade, still they don't have a future in this country. You know, they don't have a future in this country. So that is the problem in this country. That is a huge problem. So I'm here to raise this issue as well, just to remind people of that. 

Madeline Gleeson: And it's a good time to recall that there are still a few 100 people spread between Papua New Guinea and Nauru. About 1200 people who are in Australia, but so called transitory persons, who are, as you say, in limbo, not sure what their future is. And then on top of that, the tens of thousands of people in the so-called legacy caseload who are still on the temporary visas. So a very real issue and work that needs to be done. Absolutely. I might pass the microphones now. So would you like to ask your question here?

Saha: My name is Saha. And me and my family were sent to Nauru. I was nine when I was sent there. I lost five years of my life there. We were hidden. Now I am in Australia, and the government wants me to be invisible and disappear. What do you suggest we do to get back our human rights from the government? Thank you.

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, thank you very much for raising that. Last night in Melbourne, I met another person, she was in Nauru as well. I feel that everywhere that we see, we go, we see a part of this tragedy, you know, even in New Zealand, when I arrived in New Zealand, the first day I met a man who was on Manus in 2001. And later, I met another man who recently published a book, Abbas Nazari, he was a child on Tampa ship in 2001. I think we should just create our own discourse, you know, as a refugee as people with refugee background, and fight this system, you know, there is no way, you know. And we should challenge that image about refugees, you know? So that's, that's, I can't say generally. But if I give an answer, I don't know, really. Yeah, I'm not from here.

Audience Applause

Madeline Gleeson: Thank you for that question. And I'm sure everyone in the room will join me in extending a sincere apology for those years of your life that were lost. And perhaps we can speak further afterwards about what needs to be done, to better hear your voices and ensure your rights are protected. Thank you for that question. On this side.

Arash: Hi, my name is Arash. I'm one of the victims of Australian policy, and I spent six and a half years in Nauru detention centre. I would like to thank you for your really, really hard work and become a voice on behalf of all the refugees, those who never had a chance to become a celebrity. 

Audience Laughter

Arash: And then, like, have a chance to raise their problems, and also, like, have a chance to get a response from all these cruelty. But my question, is, because I was one of the people who was on the media for a long time and accused, which is, we became this voice for the immigration system, which is, through our stories, are amplifying the cruelty to all around the world. As you can see in the UK and other countries try to, like, copy and paste the same policy for the other refugees around the world. So I just want to ask you, do you have any plan to stop them, to not take advantage of our voice and the story and the things we went through? Because of these policies? Thank you so much.

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah, thank you very much. I talk about that, that we are facing an industry, you know, and it's very difficult to fight that back, you know, even when you are fighting that, you see that you are a part of it as well, you know. So you, you use the concept celebrity, you know, and that is a concept that is the that I've been struggling with, that, you know, I've been refusing to take that, you know, take that label, but generally, as I say that we are living in a capitalism system. So while we are in the capitalism system that always exists, you know, that always happened. But it's very difficult. I don't know, really, I don't have a proper answer for this question. That, how we should fight this. But with politicians, I think they are the biggest, like, they use refugees, you know, politically, I think we should first fight that. That is very important, you know, that how politicians use refugees, and they have been using refugees, you know. If you follow the federal election in Australia over the past two decades, always two months before election, something happens to refugees. You know, they use the refugees to say that these refugees are attacking our country, these boats are attacking our country, and they use refugees. But generally, as I mentioned before, we should just take control of our discourse, you know? We should create our language, create our knowledge, and fight that.

Madeline Gleeson: We're incredibly fortunate to have you here tonight to share your thoughts on these questions. But we'll also encourage every member of the audience, if you're an Australian, the burden and the responsibility also falls on us, not just to come to these events, but to go out and continue to challenge these policies. The burden doesn't always fall on, on those who've been subjected to it, to try and fight back. So it is a shared responsibility for us all. Before I go back to the microphone, there's another question through the Slido, from a member of the audience who has volunteered in some of the European refugee camps, and mentioned that they found that to be an aid hierarchy, where single adult men were often at the bottom. And the question is, was this your experience in Manus? Did you feel like there might have been a hierarchy between the aid or the advocacy around the single adult males as compared to perhaps the family groups?

Behrouz Boochani: So in Manus Island, we were men, that is the problem. 

Madeline Gleeson: Between Nauru and Manus, yeah? 

Behrouz Boochani: Yeah. So definitely there is gender discrimination here. But that is a very, very hard question to answer, because I was not in Nauru. So it's quite difficult to answer this. And anything that I say probably is the wrong approach, because we were men, and the hierarchy in Manus Island was different. The hierarchy… so I already have written about this, that in that prison camp, so there are men, refugees, Indigenous officers, who are working there, and Australian officers, and how, what is the role of Indigenous officers, the local officers, they just were just following the rules. And among the refugees, we had the LGBTQ people, and how they were suffering, you know. How sometimes the detainees, with officers, get together against them. And that happened, you know. So I mean, that hierarchy system in Manus was different, you know. So because all of us were men. But who is that?

Audience Member 1: You asked the question, I don't know, how can you say again, because I was in Nauru as well. And I had a son. He was nine years old at that time. And he's 18 mow, and he doesn't have a right to study and work. So I just want to say thank you, because are you brave enough to get your freedom. I think enough is enough. And then we are not to be silent anymore. 

Behrouz Boochani: Thank you very much. 

Audience Applause

Audience Member 2: In advance, I would like to congratulate you for what you achieved as a refugee, as a person who lived in offshores. And it's great to see someone, some refugee who lived in that situation, and now he's here, against whatever the Australian government said, never ever, you can't be in Australia. I am really grateful to see you over there. And my question is, as a person who used to live in detention over eight years and a half, in Christmas, Nauru, two years in Brisbane, and when you got released in New Zealand, how you cope with the situation in community, as soon as they are finding out you are refugee and according to Australian government, in last two two elections, they said, people who we banished to offshores, they are criminals. They are murderers. They are uneducated people. So some Australian people, South Australian community, they still believe in all of that bullshit. And as soon as most of us, we got released, as soon as some people in Australia, the Australian community, they find out we are refugees, who used to be in offshores. They turn their back on us. How do you cope in those kinds of situations? So I would like to know how you cope with that situation.

Behrouz Boochani: So I’ve just, I've been here for a few days, but yeah I think that is again, a hard question. Always hard questions come from refugees, you know. Yeah, it's very difficult to… but generally if I say something about Australia, that is a part of the dehumanisation process, that they created an image about refugees who come by boat to Australia, and then introduce them as, like, drug dealers like, potential terrorists, dangerous people. But I think people of Australia should know, and criminals, you know, they say that, but after all of these years, I think people of Australia should see by their eyes, who is criminal, you know. Who is criminal In this context? Refugees, as I mentioned before, they have created the knowledge, you know, they have been fighting this system back. And they have contributed to this society. That thing we should ask that people recognise that, you know, so I think everyone knows who is criminal in this context.

Madeline Gleeson: And I'm sure from all of the audience, to anyone in the audience tonight, who has been on Nauru and Manus Island, you know, we do welcome you, we are incredibly glad to have you here. And we hope to have a chance to speak with you later as well. And thank you for your questions.

Audience Applause

Audience Member 3: I guess Australia has the most monopolised media ownership in the world. As someone with a background in journalism and writing in an oppositional way, what are your feelings about social media and citizen journalism as a bit of a counterbalance to the, kind of, dominant media paradigm in Australia? When I was at Woomera for the Asylum Seeker Action in Central Australia, one of the things that, I guess, that was revealing was just the way our monopolised media manipulated our actions. I think perhaps we were slightly mischaracterised. And I guess that you would be very familiar with asylum seekers being defamatory orally, unfavourably mischaracterized. Have you got any thoughts about some kind of a counterbalance to that through social media and citizen journalism?

Behrouz Boochani: I think that people who have been using social media very well were refugees themselves, you know. And we have been using social media, you know, I don't know, Twitter, or Facebook, to, you know, write, to raise our voice, to challenge that system, to communicate, to create a network. And tonight, I should acknowledge those Australian people advocates who have been a part of this network for many years, they have been working with refugees, and I think people don't talk about them. I myself didn't talk about them before. Yeah, because we were in a, like, of fighting, didn't have this chance. But there are many Australians who have been in touch and working with refugees for many years. And no one hears from them, but we know them. You know, we know them. And one of the articles in this book is about that. Exactly.

Madeline Gleeson: Yes, a lot of the questions we've heard tonight are covered beautifully in the book. So we're running short of time. And we do want to save plenty of time for book signings and conversations afterwards. So if you'll allow, we might just do one more question from this side. I'm terribly sorry that we won't have time for everyone tonight. But one more question from here. Before we wrap up.

Audience Member 4: It's not a question. I just want to share a short story. I've been here in Australia for over nine years, and I was in two detentions. I was almost losing my life in the second detention centre with them, not caring about my infection illness at all. And also I’m still on temporary visas after nine and a half years, and have also been threatened by immigration officers that, if we send you to Australia, it doesn't mean you are allowed to live in Australia forever. Anytime we decide. We can come and grab you and send you back to your country or send you to detention centres, which in both cases would be the end of my life. Either they take it from me or I take it from myself. I just want to share, I love this quote by George Orwell. George Orwell says in Animal Farm, he says, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” And I believe that in Australia with the eyes of the Australian system, we are all equal with one aspect, which is paying tax. And the only thing I'm equal with others, is the tax that I pay over nine and a half years, which is totally equal. And which, that is the most that the Australian government cares, not humanity and not the human rights, thanks.

Audience Applause

Madeline Gleeson: Thank you very much to everybody who has stood up and shared their stories like that, and their questions, and a huge thank you to you Behrouz for coming and speaking so openly and generously. I'd also like to thank Omid and Moones for their insightful comments at the beginning. To Sarah Dale and the team at RACS, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, and the UNSW Centre for Ideas who hosted tonight's event. The UNSW bookshop is going to be in the foyer selling the new book Freedom, Only Freedom. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every question and topic raised tonight is covered in there, in a chapter, beautifully. It really is essential reading. And thank you all for joining us this evening. Good night.

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event is presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, and supported by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Refugee Advice and Casework Service. For more information, visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and filmmaker. Boochani was a writer and editor for the Kurdish language magazine Werya in Iran. He is a Visiting Professor at Birkbeck Law School; Associate Professor in Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney; Honorary Member of PEN International; and winner of an Amnesty International Australia 2017 Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya award for journalism. 

He publishes regularly with The Guardian, and his writing also features in The Saturday Paper, Huffington Post, New Matilda, The Financial Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time; and collaborator on Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus. His book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature in addition to the Nonfiction category. He has also won the Special Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Australian Book Industry Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year, and the National Biography Prize.

Photo Credit: Ehsan K Hazaveh

Omid Tofighian

Omid Tofighian (Introduction)

Omid Tofighian is Adjunct Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW Sydney and Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck Law, University of London. He is an award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate, combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, popular culture, displacement and discrimination. 

His publications include Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues; translation of Behrouz Boochani's multi-award-winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison, co-editor of special issues for journals Literature and Aesthetics, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media and Southerly; and co-translator/co-editor of Freedom, Only Freedom: The Prison Writings of Behrouz Boochani.

Moones Mansoubi

Moones Mansoubi (Introduction)

Moones Mansoubi is a community, arts and cultural development worker based in Sydney. Her work is dedicated mainly to supporting and collaborating with migrants and people seeking asylum in Australia. She has managed numerous community and cultural projects, and the first translation of Behrouz Boochani’s work when he began writing from Manus Island. She was translation consultant for Boochani’s book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Her translation of the article 'An Island Off Manus' (Saturday Paper) was included in Boochani’s winning nomination for the Amnesty Media Award in 2017. Moones has a Masters Degree in International Relations and is passionate about social justice and social cohesion. She is currently coordinator of the Community Refugee Welcome Centre in Inner West Sydney and a content producer for SBS Radio, Persian program.

Madeline Gleeson

Madeline Gleeson (Chairperson)

Madeline Gleeson is a lawyer and Senior Research Fellow at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney, where she directs the Offshore Processing and Regional Protection projects. Madeline specialises in international human rights and refugee law, with a focus on the law of State responsibility, extraterritorial human rights obligations, offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, and refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific region. 

She has extensive experience working with forcibly displaced people around the world. She has conducted research on asylum seekers and refugees, statelessness, human trafficking, labour migration and land grabbing with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, and worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in Geneva, Switzerland. She also has human rights experience in South Africa and Indonesia, and previously practiced as a solicitor in Australia. 

Sarah Dale

Sarah Dale (Host)

Sarah Dale is the Director and Principal Solicitor at RACS. She joined RACS in 2013 after spending a number of years working with people seeking asylum and refugees in visa cancellation and civil law issues. At RACS, Sarah was their first Child Specialist Solicitor, developing an outreach legal service to assist unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Australia, and worked tirelessly with children who were detained on Christmas Island and faced transfer to Nauru. She continued this outreach to young people who were transferred to Nauru as unaccompanied children. Sarah became Principal Solicitor in 2016 and has led RACS in responding to a shifting policy environment. In 2017, Sarah participated in the UNHCR Expert Roundtable in Brussels on family reunification, and in consultation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders at York University. 

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