Christmas Island refugee tragedy

December 16, 2010 at 9:42 pm (asylum, Australia, Human rights, immigration, iraq, Jim D)

Desperate flight: The boat had travelled from Indonesia with around 80 people on board. 50 are feared dead

Desperate: The boat  travelled from Indonesia with around 80 people on board. 50 feared dead

Next time you hear some asshole denouncing asylum seekers, remember this (and it applies to the UK as much as Australia): why would people risk their lives on unseaworthy boats, in the backs of unventilated trucks or the holds of planes,  to get out of hell-holes like Iraq and Afghanistan? Because they’re human beings who simply want half-way decent lives. The way advanced countries like the UK, France and Australia treat refugees is a disgrace. This tragedy should wake us all up. Yes, the people traffickers and gangmasters are out-and-out criminals. But the policies of advanced, democratic governments are also to blame; the Australian government’s ‘hard line’  hostility to immigrants, for instance:

The fact that there isn’t a welcome refugee policy…[makes] it  less likely that people on boats  are willing to contact  Australian authorities and to rendezvous [safely],” said Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition.

“Both victims and survivors saw the sea for the first time in their lives probably a week or so ago as they were mustered on some Indonesian beach to be loaded on board. The stories of these voyages are all much the same. The asylum seekers are terrified. They can’t swim. They retch the whole way, arriving dehydrated and exhausted – certainly in no shape to deal with the crisis they faced yesterday.

“Their cries for help woke people in the houses along the cliff. As they threw ropes and lifejackets they tried to signal the boat not to head for the rough waters of Flying Fish Cove. Smoke was pouring from the engine as the boat struck the rocks, rolled over and began to sink.

“It was too rough to launch rescue boats from the cove. Calls to dive-shop operators brought more lifejackets to throw over the cliff. But where, the islanders wondered, were the hundreds of lifejackets Immigration kept down at the wharf?”

Read more

And there’s background to this, in Australia’s hardline refugee policy, as today’s Independent points outWorkers Liberty of Australia has reported some background:

Australia’s shame: second asylum seeker suicide in two months

by Lynn Smith

An Iraqi asylum seeker, Ahmad, committed suicide at Villawood detention centre on Monday November 15.
Fellow detainees found the man hanging in a bathroom and took him down. It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Ahmad was 41 years old and had a wife and four children. He’d been in detention, on Christmas Island and in Villawood, for over a year.

He had been rejected twice under off-shore processing arrangements found to be invalid in a recent High Court decision.

“We’re shocked and very upset,” said one detainee, “People are crying. He knew about the High Court [decision] but there is no new policy.”

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition said “a number of us visited Villawood on Sunday to let people know about the High Court decision which seemed to provide s small window of hope. But for some the wait is too long… they’ve given up”.

“Incidents of self harm are daily occurrences. There needs to be a full inquiry into Ahmad’s death and into mandatory detention itself: a system that’s literally killing people.

“In 2008 Labor declared detention was a last resort. But it’s the first and only resort for asylum seekers arriving by boat. There are people here who’ve been found to be refugees but are still waiting after 18 months. This is the second suicide in Villawood in just over two months” said Rintoul.

What the recent High Court decision on offshore processing means (not much)

On November 11 the High Court ruled in favour of  two asylum seekers who challenged the offshore processing system used to determine whether those who arrive by boat are given refugee status. While the decision is a slap in the face for the government, its legal effect is limited. It does not end offshore processing. It leaves excision and s46A of the Migration Act referring to “offshore entry persons” intact.

Federal Attorney General McClelland Robert has said that offshore processing will stay and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the result is “interesting” and applies to “some cases”.

Refugees and suicide

The following is an extract from the Australian Bureau of Statistics “Causes of Death” survey, 2008.

Refugees who are bereaved or have post-traumatic stress are at risk of suicide.

Factors that increase the risk of attempting suicide include physical illness, poorly managed mental or physical symptoms, disorientation, exhaustion, little social support, alcoholism, history of depression or current depression, history of suicide attempts and unresolved grief.

In many cases, suicidal ideation or the method of suicide by refugees is related to stressful events, especially torture experienced by them.

There is evidence that self-harm, suicide and suicide attempts may occur when an asylum seeker’s application of permanent protection has been rejected, and he/she is asked to return to his/her country of origin.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) found suicide attempts by asylum seekers in detention are not infrequent, with ‘numerous examples of detainees attempting suicide or serious self-harm’. The rates of self-harm were high for people in the 26-35 age range and predominantly men16.
The methods used by children to self-harm can be quite dramatic.

Yet most Australians are sympathetic towards refugees

Eight out of 10 people said they’d help a refugee settle into their community, according to the results of an Australian Red Cross survey published on 21 June 2010.

The survey of 1,000 people across Australia also found 67% agreed that refugees have made a positive contribution to society.

“The community empathises with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Australian Red Cross CEO Robert Tickner. “Australians can relate, with 86% of people surveyed saying they too would flee to a safe country if they lived in a conflict zone and were under threat.

“Refugees and asylum seekers are very resilient. In spite of the extreme hardships and suffering they may have endured, they make a positive contribution to Australian society, economically and culturally.

“On this evidence there appears to be a disconnect between the strong sympathy of the Australian public and the unsympathetic nature of much of the public debate around asylum seekers and refugees,” Mr Tickner said.

Where do the unions stand on this major civil rights issue?

In a press release earlier this year the ACTU called for “politicians to stay calm on asylum seekers and maintain a humane approach”.

“Australia must not deviate from a refugee policy that is humanitarian, compassionate, and pays respect to international law” said ACTU President Ged Kearney.

“The Government is in talks with other countries about hosting regional processing centres. Unions are yet to be convinced this is appropriate…. Care must be taken to ensure Australia’s international obligations are not breached.

“Unions strongly reject any attempt to demonise asylum seekers for political gain,” said Kearney. “Migration – including the humanitarian and refugee program – has played a great role in Australia’s growth and prosperity and will continue to do so”.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence said unions have long supported a rational and informed public debate about immigration, population and asylum seekers based on facts.

“Politicians have a responsibility not to inflame division or misrepresent the facts, and to show leadership to counter views that would demonise asylum seekers or abrogate Australia’s international obligations,” he said.

This stuff is long on “motherhood” statements but very short on specifics. The union movement itself has the responsibility to show a strong lead here and not cow down in front the racist right, as ALP politicians from Gillard down seem to be doing.


  1. baldric said,

    Like the line”refugees first site of the sea”.Is that us old enough to rember the two and six day mystery tour, on our youthful summer holidays,first sight of the ocean,and if lucky not a river to dip your feet in.

    Our existance has come a long way from those days.Yet like those retched souls battered for their life!s bettterment ,are us progressed,2 and six now two thousand and six across the water for a profit of our debtor.

  2. James Bloodworth said,

    The problem is that our media (including the BBC) will spend 10 times the amount of time denouncing the single asylum seeker who commits a crime and isn’t deported rather than any story of trajedy involving asylum seekers – of which there are many many more.

    They will make excuses that “this is what people want”, when in reality it’s a big feedback loop.

    The preoccipation with asylum seekers is no more sophisticated than simple racism. Those who claim their right to discuss immigration is restricted are completely delusional – the bizarre obsession with asylum seekers is what illuminates their real underlying pathology.

  3. James Bloodworth said,

    On that note, good post on a terrible story.

  4. maxdunbar said,

    And a good comment, James

  5. Steve said,

    We live in a very very racist society, the media help foster that but in the main they just reflect it. And we have the nerve to claim we are helping these people when we invade their fucking nations.

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