Death of Asylum Seekers Spark Renewed Outrage over Australian Government’s Ineffective Refugee Policy
After retrieving a total of 17 bodies, authorities have wrapped up all search and recovery operations. Since last week another vessel has capsized on its way to Christmas Island. The boatload of 130 passengers included two infants and a toddler and a person that required a wheelchair. Four people drowned before emergency services could reach them.
Despite two days worth of impassioned discussion and accusations between the opposition and government, Parliament is no closer to finding a resolution. Parliamentarians are about to take their six week winter recess with the matter still unresolved.
As many as 90 people have been deemed by authorities as dead or missing after a boat load of up to 200 asylum seekers capsized on Wednesday night 200 kilometers north of Christmas Island.
In what was described by Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a “very distressing and tragic incident”, 40 people were observed to be clinging to the hull of the overturned vessel while another 35 were in the sea.
West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan stated that there were not enough lifejackets on board and that the bodies of those who could not be retrieved by the joint Indonesian and Australian rescue teams would likely be taken to Christmas Island. So far only 110 survivors have been fished out of the water and the final fatality count has yet to be confirmed.
The vessel, identified as of being Sri Lankan origin has reignited political furore over Australia’s controversial asylum seeker policy with the government and opposition heaping blame on each other over the continually rising death toll. A string of tragic accidents involving asylum seekers, notably the loss of 50 lives when a boat crashed into rocks on Christmas Island in December 2010 and the drowning of 200 people on an overloaded Australia bound vessel which sank off the coat of East Java in December 2011, have electrified the debate over Australia’s refugee policy.
Last year the government’s plan to process refugees off-shore in Malaysia, known as the Malaysian Plan was met with opposition due to the fact that Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions and asylum seekers would face questionable treatment under them. The High Court ruled the swap as unlawful, noting that under the terms of the Malaysian Solution Australia would fail to meet its international obligations towards asylum seekers.
Despite the ongoing deaths, major parties are far from reaching a bipartisan solution to deal with the asylum seeker situation. Compared to the U.S, which has an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants entering its borders every year on top of the 275, 461 people that sought refuge as of the end of 2009 (UNHCR 2010), Australia’s overall migration rate is described by U.S diplomats as “a drop in the ocean”.
In an impassioned article detailing the level of ignorance that surrounds the issue of asylum seekers in Australia, Journalist Mike Steketee states that “misapprehensions, not facts, drive our dysfunctional asylum-seeker debate”. The fact that Australia’s total of 6,206 asylum seeker claims is miniscule compared to 222,000 in South Africa, 47,900 in the U.S, 42,100 in France, 40,000 in Malaysia and 35,500 in Ecuador has done little to deter the atmosphere of hysteria in the public arena.
A culmination of this is the avoidance of on-shore processing and the emergence of indefinite mandatory detention for refugees in Australia. This practice has come under fire from human rights groups who especially criticise the illegal detention of children. It must be noted that no other Western country employs a policy of mandatory detention as it is illegal under international law. Political jockeying between the government and opposition has caused deterioration in Australia’s ability to fulfil its obligation to treat asylum seekers with compassion and dignity, a responsibility which is enshrined in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal declaration of human rights,
- Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
- This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
The difference between legitimate asylum seekers and illegal immigrants has yet to be acknowledge by Australia’s major political parties, both which of intend to flout international conventions on the treatment of refugees. Richard Towle, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in the
Pacific region, points out that “It is not wrong or illegal to use the asylum system,” because “It was set up precisely for those people who are forced to move across a border.”
Sadly the journey for those who are desperate enough to undertake a dangerous voyage at sea to reach Australia does not end with their arrival; newcomers are often faced with outcomes that are less than ideal: deportation or mandatory detention. Painted as potential terrorists or “queue jumpers”, asylum seekers ignite fears that they are “flooding” the country and are not safe to be released into the wider community. Other common myths include perceptions that they are not real refugees, that detention centres are like luxury hotels (they are more like medium security prisons) and that sending refugees elsewhere would deter people smugglers.
The current political deadlock has failed to prevent the ever increasing number of tragedies such as the drowning of 108 people in October 2009. The cries of the passengers in their calls to their friends and families are chilling as they slipped into their final moments, praying for help. Nazir Hussein Rezai, whose sister and nephews were on board said ”There was just screaming and crying and the sound of waves crashing on the boat, as it went down, drowning the men, women, and children.” The vessel, which originated from Indonesia, was full of Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and was mostly made up of families with children.
Says Towle: “Each of the figures in this report tells a human story of loss and tragedy. Despite its distance from these places of terrible suffering, Australia shares the responsibility to protect refugees.” Australia’s human rights record will bear witness to the loss of lives of people who have exercised their right to seek shelter from dangerous situations and until the Australia government reaches a feasible solution, asylum seekers will continue to risk their lives on sea voyages to reach the mainland.
Original story: Phillip Coorey, Sydney Morning Herald June 22 2012 Rescuers Fear 90 Drowned in Asylum Seeker Tragedy
BBC News, August 31 2011 Australia court rules out refugee ‘swap’ with Malaysia
Murphy, Zoe BBC News, August 19 2011 Australia’s ‘Toxic’ Asylum Issue
Steketee, Mike, The Australian, August 13 2011 Misapprehensions, not facts, drive our dysfunctional asylum-seeker debate
UNHCR 2012 Statistics 2009 Global Trends
O’Brien, Natalie, SMH, June 3 2012 As 108 drowned, they cried: ‘Pray for us”
- Refugee Council of Australia 2012 Australia’s Refugee Program: Facts and Stats