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Anton Nilsson

Boochani accuses Labor and Coalition of ‘competition of cruelty’

A man who was imprisoned on Manus Island for six years has claimed Labor and the Coalition are in a “competition of cruelty” when it comes to dealing with refugees. 

Behrouz Boochani, who is visiting Australia to lead a call for a royal commission into immigrant detention, told Crikey he had hoped the Labor government would seize the opportunity to distinguish itself from the former government by stopping the “systematic torture” of indefinite and offshore detention.

“Politically, it would be a good time for Labor to clean up this mess before the next federal election,” he said. “[Former Home Affairs secretary Mike] Pezzullo has lost his job, and Peter Dutton has always used refugees to push around and dominate them. So it would be a good time for Labor [to do something different].”

But the government’s reaction to the High Court decision ruling indefinite detention unconstitutional left Boochani disheartened. The decision was explained in reasons published on Tuesday and has been met by the government with hastily written laws to monitor and curtail the movements of former immigration detainees.

“The way they reacted to the High Court decision shows that the major parties are always united against refugees. It’s shown that it’s important for these parties to have this competition of cruelty,” Boochani said. 

Boochani, a 40-year-old Kurdish-Iranian journalist who has been granted refugee status in New Zealand, said he suffered mentally and physically during his years on Manus Island. Not knowing how long he would have to stay behind bars was one of the worst aspects: “You don’t know how long you have to stay there; it makes it much more difficult. It’s deep torture.”

Travelling in Australia as a free man and having meetings in Parliament House felt surreal, he said: “I was imprisoned by Australia for six years, and banished from Australia. So being here is surreal, but I try not to think about it and just try to be practical and work to support refugees.”

More than 3,000 adults and 200 children have been held offshore on Manus Island and Nauru since 2013, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which supports the call for a royal commission.

The last refugee held by Australia on Nauru was evacuated earlier this year while dozens of people remain in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island detention centre as of earlier this month.

When a call for a royal commission into onshore and offshore detention was being brought before a Labor Party national conference earlier this year, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said Labor was “a democratic party which holds open and transparent debates about policies and issues affecting Australians”, adding cabinet would ultimately set the policies, according to The Australian

The laws implemented in response to the High Court decision have already been challenged in the courts by a Chinese refugee known as S151 on the basis that they are “punitive” — more challenges are anticipated, two UNSW refugee law experts wrote in The Conversation this week. 

Legal experts have previously told Crikey that the monitoring and curfews imposed on former detainees could be found in violation of the constitution’s third chapter, which makes clear punitive measures the jurisdiction of the courts.

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