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Author describes his years in an Australian processing center ahead of its closure

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the author Behrouz Boochani won Australia's biggest literary prize a few years ago for his book "No Friend But The Mountains," he was imprisoned on a remote island of Papua New Guinea. Manus Island is where Australia held asylum-seekers like him indefinitely for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEHROUZ BOOCHANI: The Australian government called this place a camp or offshore processing center, but for us, it's a prison.

SHAPIRO: Boochani had that conversation with NPR in 2018, and the next year, New Zealand gave him a way out. This week, Australia said that it will close its refugee processing center in Papua New Guinea, and so we've called Behrouz Boochani to hear his reaction.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BOOCHANI: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Australia is not abandoning this policy altogether. It will still hold refugees offshore, both on its territory Christmas Island and on the island nation of Nauru. So what is your reaction to this news of the Papua New Guinea facility closing?

BOOCHANI: The biggest problem is that still the policy exists, and anyone who comes to Australia, they banish them to the Pacific islands. And still, 124 people are in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. They closed the Manus prison camp, like, three years ago, but they hold people in Port Moresby. So I think nothing big changed here. You know, what about those people who remain in Port Moresby?

SHAPIRO: What do the people who are still there tell you about what their life is like these days?

BOOCHANI: So, you know - so I was there, so I know how the situation is. So in that country, the problem is safety. Four months ago, some gangs, they attacked the refugees. They put gun on them and robbed them. And that is not the first time that something like this happened.

SHAPIRO: These places that Australia calls offshore processing centers you have described as sites of despair and torture. You've called them prisons. Do you think Australia is trying to improve its public image by closing this site in Papua New Guinea without actually changing the policy or closing the other sites?

BOOCHANI: No, I think Australia, they think about election. So we are getting close to the federal election in Australia. And that's why - always Australian government has a plan, you know, since 2001 that they introduced this policy. I don't know why, really, why this media are caring about what they say, you know? Always they say they closed this, they closed that, they closed that, you know, but still, the policy is there, people are there. Nothing happened here, you know?

SHAPIRO: There has been so much international criticism of this policy. The U.N. has said Australia's asylum processing policies violate the Convention Against Torture. The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court says it amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. And so why do you think it persists?

BOOCHANI: Because that is how Australia is, you know? We are talking about a country with a long history of colonialism. That is Australian mentality. And unfortunately, Australia has become a model for other countries. That is a huge problem. Sometimes I think - I say that we are living in the age of camps, you know?

SHAPIRO: Your book "No Friend But The Mountains" made you almost an international spokesperson for these refugees who are caught in limbo in hopes of entering Australia or finding some landing place. When you speak to them today - and they know that you talk to reporters all over the world - is there one thing that they want the public to know?

BOOCHANI: You know, the refugees who are in Port Moresby, they don't care how people think about them. They don't care what history will judge about Australia. Hope - just they want to get freedom. You know, they want just - they want to start a new life, you know, somewhere in the country, that they be able to start a new life, you know?

SHAPIRO: That is Kurdish Iranian journalist and author Behrouz Boochani speaking with us from New Zealand.

Thank you very much.

BOOCHANI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.