Eight months after arriving in New Zealand, acclaimed author Behrouz Boochani has been granted refugee status.
The Kurdish-Iranian writer joins a small group of successful applicants – with almost two thirds of asylum claims rejected last year.
Gaining refugee status means he can stay in New Zealand indefinitely and can apply for a resident’s visa.
When he left Papua New Guinea – where he was detained for six years after attempting to enter Australia – ABC reported he had been accepted for resettlement in the United States.
* Author Boochani still in Christchurch months after visa expired
* National wants answers about Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani
* Immigration NZ staff tackle asylum seeker backlog
He was brought to New Zealand for a writers’ festival in Christchurch in November, on a one-month visa supported by Amnesty International NZ, and has lived in the city while seeking asylum.
His award-winning book, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, made him the toast of the literary world. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark was among the thousands of people to welcome him via Twitter.
Boochani, who worked as an activist and journalist, fled Iran in 2013 fearing persecution. In July of that year he reached Indonesia and boarded a boat for Australia but the vessel was intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy and Boochani was incarcerated at a refugee centre on Manus Island.
Asylum seekers are people who claim refugee or protected status because they fear returning to their own country.
Boochani said the granting of refugee status marked the end of a “long chapter” of his life.
“I was involved in a long struggle against a barbaric policy, against this system that exiled innocent people and kept people in indefinite detention for a long time.”
“But of course fighting continues, so I look at it in this way, but of course it’s very important that now I have some certainty about my future, so now I feel stronger, I feel stable to continue to work here.”
During his six years in detention on Manus Island Boochani became an outspoken critic of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Now granted asylum in New Zealand he intended to continue that “fight”.
The activist and journalist was looking forward to continuing his work in Christchurch and had accepted a role as an adjunct senior research fellowship with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre at the University of Canterbury (UC).
Iranian writer and refugee Behrouz Boochani in the Gus Fischer gallery in Auckland. He had been incarcerated on Manus Island since 2013
“My work is not just about refugees, it is about minorities, migration, identity… academic work and journalism is my whole career.”
UC Ngāi Tahu Research Centre associate professor Te Maire Tau said the centre was delighted Boochani had been accepted as a refugee in New Zealand.
“As the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu is laying a protective cloak over Behrouz Boochani – tākaitia ki te korowai aroha.”
UC has a history of supporting refugees going back as far as the 1930s, when Karl Popper the philosopher arrived as a Jewish refugee from Austria, Tau said.
National’s immigration spokesperson, Stuart Smith, has questioned the legitimacy of the process over Boochani’s application for asylum and suggested he received favourable treatment from Immigration New Zealand because he had supporters in the Government.
Smith said the minister of immigration or Immigration New Zealand had not given any direction to allow Boochani to enter New Zealand, and he did not meet the criteria for a refugee as it was not true he had nowhere else to go.
“He [Boochani] publicly stated he had been accepted to settle in the US, or he could go back to live in Papua New Guinea.”
Boochani and his lawyer, Alister James, rejected the claims.
James said the application was a very robust, non-political process in line with the Immigration Act and established processes that had been applied for decades under the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status.
“It is not safe for Mr Boochani to return to Papua New Guinea and the decision reflects all of those things.”
James said a presidential order made by President Donald Trump banning the entry of Iranian nationals to the US would make it impossible for Boochani to live there.
Boochani said he did not know any politicians in New Zealand before arriving for the Writers Festival and his political independence was extremely important to him.
“I don’t want to be friends with politicians.”
He said the National Party had tried to emulate Australian politicians by politicising his case to create division, but there was less tolerance of that approach in New Zealand.
Green Party immigration spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman, herself a former refugee, said the party welcomed Boochani to New Zealand.
“He has faced persecution and torture at the hands of Iran’s Islamic regime and whilst imprisoned on Manus Island, it is well overdue that he had a place where he is safe to put down roots.
“People escaping torture and persecution based on their religion, race, and political activism deserve a place to call home, they deserve protection.”
NZ Society of Authors president Mandy Hagar welcomed the news of Boochani’s asylum, saying his resettlement in New Zealand “enriches us all”.
Refugees to New Zealand who have achieved acclaim include Ghahraman, New Zealand’s first MP from a refugee background, Rez Gardi who was named Young New Zealander of the Year 2017, and Eliana Rubashkyn, who was forced to leave Colombia because of violence towards trans and intersex people.
Applications for refugee and protection status in New Zealand increased from 287 in 2013-14 to 510 in 2018-19 and between 2010 and 2020 they were made by people from more than 45 nationalities.
Of those, 496 were Chinese nationals, 259 were Indian and 237 were Sri Lankan.
Many claimants were from places of conflict – such as Syria (72 claims) and Afghanistan (121 claims) – while some were from wealthy European countries, such as Switzerland (5 claims) and Germany (7 claims).
During the last 10 years, 237 claims were made by people from Boochani’s home country of Iran.
During 2019-20, 342 asylum cases were assessed by Immigration NZ and 124 were approved.
Common reasons to decline a claim are: it may not be credible or facts “do not establish the person faces a risk of harm that would trigger New Zealand’s international protection obligations”.
Unsuccessful asylum applicants can appeal to the independent Immigration and Protection Tribunal, however, of the 136 appeals made in 2019, 79 were dismissed.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice showed there were 25 hearing between January 1 and May 29 2020* and of those, 16 appeals were dismissed.
Dismissed appeals include:
– A couple from China who feared harm due to their breach of the family planning laws.
– A Colombian woman who said she was in danger after refusing to pay protection money to a paramilitary group.
– A German woman who believed she was under surveillance by state intelligence agencies.
– An Indian couple and their daughter who claimed to be at risk from the wife’s family due to their inter-caste marriage.
Between 2016 and 2019, INZ spent $3.9 million on deportations, which included declined asylum claimants.
Between 2015 and 2020, 1371 residence visas were granted under the Refugee Family Support Resident Visa scheme, with almost one third granted to people from Afghanistan.
*No Immigration and Protection Tribunal cases were held between March 12 and May 4, 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions.
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