The city of Christchurch has welcomed Behrouz Boochani with a civic reception and a traditional Māori mihi whakatau – a formal welcome – as his presence, and liberty, in New Zealand once again underscores the country’s political differences with Australia over immigration.
Boochani was formally greeted from the plane by the mayor of Christchurch and the city’s Māori leaders, who told him he was welcomed by the mountains, the rivers, and the people of the city.
The Kurdish Iranian refugee, elated but weary after a 34-hour journey across six timezones in the Asia-Pacific, thanked the people of NZ, saying it was “an honour to be here … and a reminder of kindness”.
For six years, NZ has had a standing offer to resettle 150 refugees from the offshore processing islands of Manus and Nauru each year, but that offer has been consistently rebuffed by Australia.
The government MP Golriz Ghahraman, a member of the NZ Greens party and herself a former Kurdish refugee from Iran, said NZ was a nation that stood against “hate and division”.
“I’m just so proud that New Zealand gets to stand as the counterpoint to the kind of politics that has led to Australia’s prison camps being in operation for so long,” she said. “We’ve got a man like this, a human being … trapped for six years, and we get to be the country that stands for inclusion and for human rights and for freedom.”
“For Behrouz to be able to stand and be the voice of all of the people who are ignored and trapped right now is just incredible … [but] it is a reminder of how many others are trapped in refugee camps, in detention or in war.”
Asked if she had a message for the Australian government, Ghahraman said: “close the camps … they amount to torture. It’s time the Australian government acts like a good international citizen.”
Lianne Dalziel, the mayor of Christchurch, welcomed Boochani to the city alongside Upoko Te Maire Tau, representing the Iwi of Christchurch, the Ngāi Tahu.
Dalziel said her city, traumatised by the mosque shootings in March, remained committed to multiculturalism and to welcoming people from all over the world.
The mayor was immigration minister in the NZ government during Australia’s Tampa crisis of 2001. A significant proportion of the asylum seekers on that ship turned away by Australia were ultimately resettled in NZ.
“I don’t support the idea that people are basically put in detention and left forever with no option other than to return to certain death or imprisonment, or to remain virtually imprisoned on an island,” Dalziel said.
“I understand why people would want to have a reaction to the people smugglers, the traders in human misery … but I don’t think that that can be a reason for overriding people’s human rights.”
Amnesty International’s NZ executive director, Meg de Ronde, said Boochani’s liberty was a reminder that 500 men, women and children remained held within Australia’s offshore detention regime.
“This is a glimmer of hope for all of those men, women and children who are still trapped in offshore detention,” she said. “To have Behrouz Boochani set foot in New Zealand it really shows up the Australian government’s really torturous regime for what it really is.”
Boochani’s future remains unclear. He has a one-month visa for New Zealand, and will appear at the Word Christchurch festival this month. Asked directly whether he would consider applying for asylum in New Zealand, he demurred.
“I want to be free just for a while,” he said. “As a writer, nothing else. I don’t want to be a part of a process for a while. I don’t want to answer that question now.”
He did say he hoped NZ might consider extending his visa for an additional month.
Boochani, technically, has been accepted for resettlement in the US under Australia’s “refugee swap” deal with America. But his flight to NZ might lead to that offer being withdrawn. Other refugees who have escaped Manus have sought – and won – asylum in Europe, while others have been privately sponsored to resettle in Canada.
The multiple award-winning writer has vowed he will never submit to Australia’s offshore regime again, but he will continue to advocate for those who remain held within it.
Nearly 50 men were being held without sufficient food or medication, he said, and with almost no communication with the outside world, in dire circumstances in Bomana prison in Papua New Guinea. “If they continue to keep them there, more people will die.”
Australia’s hardline policy of deporting foreign nationals who serve prison sentences – regardless of whether their connection to their country of nationality is tenuous or historic or was juvenile – has deeply angered NZ and other Pacific nations who argue that Australia is bullying regional neighbours by dumping unwanted people with no support or assistance.