Below is the keynote speech, given by video link at this year’s 18 May annual Human Rights Dinner in Sydney, of the Human Rights Law Centre, by refugee journalist Behrouz Boochani. He has become an important voice for refugee rights in Manus, where he had been imprisoned for five years, and for those held at other detention centres.
Dear distinguished guests, fighters for freedom and supporters of justice. Greetings to you all. I would like to acknowledge everyone and thank you for attending tonight.
This is a wonderful opportunity. It gives me great pleasure to communicate with you from Manus Island and present at this event.
I wish to extend a special thank you to Daniel Webb and the Human Rights Law Centre for giving me this valuable opportunity.
The situation on Manus Island and Nauru over the past five years should be no secret to anyone.
The aim of my talk tonight is to add a new dimension to the debates pertaining to punishment, debasement and dehumanisation of individuals held within these sites.
I will not repeat how Australian politicians have inflicted pain and suffering on the innocent refugees locked up in these prisons. The incarceration of people seeking asylum, in particular the children on Nauru, is remarkably cruel and has been exposed in many compelling ways.
All of the documentation, witness testimonies and other evidence that have been discussed and published until now have proven conclusively that innocent people have been enduring extraordinary forms of physical, emotional and psychological torment. The fact that ten people have lost their lives on Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island since 2013 is a despicable crime that needs to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
No one can ignore the fact that people have been killed and thousands of lives destroyed as a result of political power plays.
The use of exile as a political tactic against vulnerable refugees is based on the construction of two concepts: national security and the national interest.
Without a doubt, Australian governments have enacted an extensive propaganda campaign which centres on a perverse account of these two notions. What should be a debate about people – about human beings, about children and families – has been deliberately poisoned to become a debate about borders and security. As a result, the governments playing this game have been able to manipulate and dictate the majority of public opinion, they have been able to strengthen their support base and galvanise others in support of their policies.
Both Labor and Liberal governments have accrued enormous political profit by using this tactic. Creating a false sense of national security by treating innocent victims of war and persecution as a security threat, and saying it is in the national interest to use any means to keep us out.
But how is it in the national interest to undermine Australia’s international reputation with these policies? And spend almost $9 billion to do it?
The fact is, Manus Island and Nauru are pivotal to elections in Australia. The two major political parties have been using the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru for their own ambitions. Our lives are a form of ritual sacrifice. The price they are prepared to pay for power.
By ‘us’ I don’t just mean the men on Manus Island. I also mean the innocent children and women who have remained in a kind of purgatory for five years.
So what is the next course of action? We must accept the fact that after all these years the on-going pro-refugee campaigns and protests, the movements within civil society, and the work of refugee activists have been incapable of forcing change within Australia’s political system.
We must confront our failures and recognise our mistakes. However, at the same time, there have also been many notable achievements.
We have been successful in making the plight of incarcerated refugees a central issue in public discourse and this has created opportunities for making our aims and objectives clear: we want freedom… we demand freedom for all the refugees.
We have also been able, at the very least, to document the history of this ruthless political ideology and the merciless act of exiling refugees.
We are confident that these crimes will never be forgotten. That is, we have been successful in writing history using our voices. But no matter how much emphasis I place on these achievements, ultimately, they mean nothing until the refugees are free.
Our advocacy will be acknowledged as truly valuable and worthwhile only when we can secure the release and safety of the refugees imprisoned on these islands.
I do not want my tone and mood to reflect any sense of hopelessness. Under the current circumstances one must be as active as ever.
Detaining refugees for over five years in a prison is, undeniably, a moral failure. It also reflects a failure in the various forms of resistance. But, losing hope, or relinquishing one’s duty to human rights are even greater forms of failure and moral bankruptcy. The worst thing any of us can do is give up.
I am someone who has been locked up here on Manus Island for five years and have been struggling to employ any means possible to persuade public perception regarding our situation.
I have tried so hard to acquire any resource available to communicate a deeper understanding of our plight. I have endeavoured to shed light on the human factor within this politicised and militarised climate. My aim has always been to emphasise our humanity and invite others to see and feel that for themselves.
Many have fought alongside the refugees and used whatever was in their power to change the system.
I have been working with those supporters and fighting from within the prison. And this ongoing fight has made me tired.
But, as someone who has had to endure pressure from all angles I would like to ask all of you to continue on this path that we have been traversing together.
Do not give up. The refugees have no choice but to persevere.
We cannot stop resisting. Until we are free our struggle will never end. Never forget what we have endured all these years, the consequences of physical, emotional and psychological pain and affliction will never end.
We cannot stop resisting.