Since the 1950s, with the end of the hostilities in Vietnam, there have been 'boat people' risking lives, seeking a new life on this island continent. Uninvited, but not illegal, thousands, fleeing their homelands, leaving families, careers, loved ones, even brothers and sisters, have sought refuge in Australia, and -- even as this news is posted -- just minutes ago (Tuesday, 15 November), off the northwest coast, another boat with 93 asylum seekers has been intercepted.
While no summary is yet available for 2011, during 2010, illegal, people-smuggler boats were intercepted about every third day. Nearly 7,000 claiming asylum, mostly from troubled Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
2011 appears no different. November started with seventy crammed onto a decrepit, nineteen meter, wooden fishing craft, leaving Java for a new life in Australia. Thirty minutes into the journey, with petrol fumes choking the passengers – most below deck – the boat tipped to one side, water rushed in: eight to nine, including children, are known drowned, about fifteen more missing.
Tom Allard, from Java, reporting to Melbourne's The Age
, told of a mother whose husband had died; selling everything, she sought a new life with daughter, Mahdieh, 14, and son Mahdi, 9, only to have them drown. Hamid Ranjbarian, escaping Iran, swam with his three-year-old daughter for six hours, until morning light, when saved by a fisherman.
The worst tragedy occurred in 2001 when 353 lives were lost when the Siev X sunk. The author and President of Melbourne PEN, Arnold Zable, was told by Amal (one of the survivors), escaping Iraq, how she survived only by clinging to the floating corpse of another woman and never to forget seeing the many children 'asleep' in the water. He tells her story in 2011, admitting, as he writes (in Violin Lessons
) with anxiety, wanting to get it right... “to find in the words that will capture her eloquence ... her story with clarity and poetic vision....”
If they arrive.
Frightfully inadequate vessels, insufficient life-vests, bread and water, retching sea-sickness, and gross sanitary conditions are the travesties endured by those fleeing persecution. Then, when intercepted, by the now sufficient and effective Australian shore patrols they are taken to detention facilities described as little more than prisons. “There,” as refugee advocate, Peter Job, told me, at an Ancestry International meeting, “having to pass through seven security gates in order to speak with an asylum seeker who may have to endure confinement for as long as five or six years.”
Over the past year, while waiting for their cases to be settled, perhaps fearful of being sent back to Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka or Fiji, four detained men have committed suicide.
A social worker, who prefers not to be named, as his confidential duties involve several agencies of government and the private sector (such as the Red Cross), reminded me that the numbers of asylum seekers to Australia are relatively small compared to places like Britain or Canada. What concerned him most was that the long and arduous process of detention robs Australia of a rich resource of highly qualified, resourceful and resilient people. “Too many,” he said, “are traumatized by the process, sometimes more so than in the situation they originally sought to escape.”
He continued, “Instead of being able to use their skills, too often Australia has created persons without confidence, not even trusting the country they sought refuge in.” Finally, adding, “Frequently, they require ongoing health and welfare support.”
Both Peter Job and the social worker applied the word “damaged” to describe individuals who were capable engineers, teachers, journalists, and so forth, before enduring long states of limbo both on-shore and off-shore in the prison-like detention centers operated by a private company.
It appears the island nation, with excessive border control, despite its large immigrant population, is unwilling to rise to the possibilities of a more humanitarian resettlement.