How visual, how cruel, and how wasteful. The death toll from official sources from a wooden fishing boat that smashed against the treacherous coastline of the Australian territory of Christmas Island has reached 28. Up to 100 might have been on to the vessel comprising Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans. The scenes were filmed and witnessed by residents on the remote territory.
With every calamity that seems to ensue from the influx of asylum seekers, the forces of politics in Australia take their predictable stands. For the Coalition, perched on the aisles and hungrily awaiting to unseat the incumbent minority government, the matter is clear. The needless deaths of asylum seekers were largely occasioned by their own arrangements and current government leniency. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer would explain to the BBC, the previous policy was one that worked even if it made the bleeding hearts furious. Numbers of those seeking asylum by sea declined. The flood gates were stemmed.
Humanitarianism, for such advocates as Downer, is not allowed to intervene and cloud judgment. The language of state policy to the human subject is laced with euphemism. Internment camps are called ‘processing’ camps, suggesting that refugees are a form of inconvenient human sewerage who require appropriate labeling. ‘Beware ? asylum seeker in sight.’ They are to be placed at distant global points to dissuade ‘people smugglers’ from gaining the upper hand.
Boat journeys to Australia’s coastline tend to be laden with mortal risk. The vessels used are notoriously unreliable. The number of those who perish in their attempts to reach Australia through the Indonesian transit route grow annually. The Australian Department of Immigration is being rather coy about the number of vessels that leave Indonesia and don’t make it to Australia.
There is a persistent refusal in political circles to allow processing in Australia proper. While the savagery of the Howard government’s response has been modified, the Gillard government insists on reviving some form of off-shore ‘processing’. Individuals such as Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition cite this policy as a direct cause of this event. The Australian government ‘should be dropping the anti-people smuggling laws so that people feel they can safely contact Australian authorities without recriminations’ (The Age, Dec 16).
The humanitarian net so widely extolled in government circles is, in truth, a small one. Far from seeking a broader policy, the argument made by those who fear a swell of applicants is to narrow and restrict the application process. The Howard government, to give but one example, introduced a particularly noxious form of visa: a ‘temporary protection visa’. According to Abdul Khaliq Fazal, president of the Afghan Australian Association of Victoria, a ‘proper policy’ was needed. For Fazal, propriety lies in a basic appraisal of humanity, notably, the widening of the humanitarian program.
What is ideally required now, apart from providing relief to the survivors, is an investigation. Tony Kevin reminds us about that most gruesome of incidents, the drowning of 350 people from the sinking of the SIEV X in October 2001. The troubling question here is why the border protection authorities did not intervene earlier to pick up the boat before it met its fate. The detection offered by the JORN radar system is formidable. ‘The question is why a boat was not ordered to sea to pick up this tragic vessel at a safe distance 12 to 24 nautical miles from Christmas Island’ (The Australian, Dec 16).
Residents on Christmas Island are themselves voicing concern about vessels that are not being detected by the Australian navy. As one, only going by the name of ‘John’ told the Herald Sun (Dec 16), ‘So many people have bombarded the island and have no respect for it. We really are a dropping zone for everyone who wants to come here.’ A softer stance is unlikely, but a brutal one won’t deter those who are desperate enough to risk losing their lives in attaining better ones.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com