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For refugees like Ali, Australian prison islands are no paradise

In this Sept. 21, 2001 photo men shave,

In this Sept. 21, 2001 photo men shave, brush their teeth and prepare for the day at a refugee camp on the Island of Nauru. Credit: AP

In the confusing flurry of activity at the White House this week, the tense telephone conversation between President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull caught my eye.

Trump described the Barack Obama administration agreement for the United States to accept some of the Middle Eastern refugees being detained on Australian prison islands in Papua New Guinea as a “dumb deal.”

Casual U.S. observers might just shrug and agree with Trump about refugees languishing on the other side of the planet. But they are, of course, people, one of whom I know.

A 24-year-old Iranian cartoonist is being detained on tiny Manus Island under conditions the UN has described as “cruel and illegal.” Far from being among the “next Boston bombers,” as Trump called the refugees, his name is Ali.

Ali is a gentle, creative man who goes by the pen name Eaten Fish: an editorial commentary on how he feels after being plucked from the ocean while seeking a better life. Cartoonists aren’t treated particularly well by Iran. Last summer, artist Atena Farghadani was originally sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison after she drew a cartoon in response to legislation restricting birth control and the ability of a married woman to initiate a divorce. Her sentence was later commuted, but the government’s message was clear.

In Ali’s case, he’s been held for three traumatic years behind a barbed-wire fence on the island, where he has been emotionally and physically abused. In a message on Thursday, Ali told me he is on a hunger strike and not faring well.

He is unable to leave — unless he agrees to return to Iran. A cartoonist returning to be dealt with by Iranian authorities? Now that, President Trump, would be what I consider a “dumb deal.”

This is originally appeared in The Point, the daily email newsletter of the editorial board. Sign up at