On 14 November 2019, Behrouz Boochani arrived in New Zealand, to feature in the WORD Christchurch literary festival. In so doing, Boochani, the Kurdish-Iranian writer, detained – or, in his words, exiled – by the Australian government for six years, finally escaped his ‘Manus Prison’. The details of his resettlement remained unclear, but it didn’t matter; he simply wanted to be ‘free for a while’. Around the world, on broadcast and social media, thousands celebrated Boochani’s ‘long flight to freedom’. This followed his award-winning book No Friend But the Mountains (2018), an autobiographical novel typed on his mobile phone using WhatsApp, one passage at a time. Smuggled from Manus in thousands of PDF files, it was translated from Farsi into English by his Iranian-Australian collaborator, Dr Omid Tofighian. For Boochani and those concerned with the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, his escape offered a rare moment of exultation.
Three days later, the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged. Some investigations have traced the first confirmed case to 17 November 2019 in Hubei Province, China. At particular risk were those in captive quarters: nursing homes, prisons, detention facilities. In March 2020, with more than 500,000 Covid-19 cases worldwide, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for detainees held ‘without sufficient legal basis’ to be released. In Australia, the advice was echoed by some 1,200 medical professionals in an open letter to federal ministers Peter Dutton and Alan Tudge; the clinicians called for the release of refugees and asylum seekers into community-supported accommodation. The plea merely elicited a statement from the Department of Home Affairs about cleaning measures in detention centres.
In repurposed Australian hotels, hundreds of men formerly detained on Manus Island and Nauru were at heightened risk from the virus. In Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel, which accommodates more than 100 detainees, a security guard tested positive in March. In July, at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne, which houses around sixty men, another guard tested positive. ‘Everyone is panicking … they don’t want to die,’ said Farhad Bandesh, a detainee at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation. Meanwhile, the Department of Home Affairs reiterated that protective measures, including the provision of gloves and masks, were in place.