Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Australia Refugee Threat

Self-actualization gurus have often said that you can control your own life, and make whatever you like with it. What they seem to have neglected to say is that the starting point plays a crucial role.

If you were born into a comfortable middle-class family in a relatively stable, developed country, you may have a fair chance. But if you, as events are unraveling now, were born in the last three or four decades in Iraq, Afganistan or Sri Lanka, you may very likely have the odds stacked against you.

You may become involuntarily involved in events beyond your control, like political instability, violent conflicts or persecution based on ethnicity in your country, and if you try to escape, you may still become the subject of social and political profiling by those countries where you seek refuge. This is especially so if you dare to go there by boat, because the image derived from the social political profiling of boatpeople is not much better than that of criminals.

Western countries in general have been particularly sensitive to the idea of being infiltrated by "terrorists", or would-be terrorists, after the September 11 attack. Any "unauthorized" arrivals from regions regarded as hotbeds of terrorism are immediately suspect.

In late August 2001, in what is now infamously known in Australia as the Tampa Incident, 438 Afghan men, women and children were rescued from a 20-meter Indonesian wooden fishing boat, the Palapa 1, by a Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa. By that time, the boat was falling apart, and some of the passengers had already jumped into the water, and others had thrown children overboard in the direction of those already in the water before jumping in themselves.

Curiously, what was immediately released to the media then and subsequently publicized was an image of adult passengers throwing their children overboard. And then the Australian prime minister John Howard was quoted as saying, "We don't want that kind of people in Australia," referring to those who "threw their children overboard". Howard successfully won an election after that incident, hailed as a hero who protected Australian borders from "unwanted" arrivals, all 438 of them, including children.

Earlier this month, on April 16, after a "lull" of several months, another boat from the Indonesian West Javanese port of Merak, carrying "unauthorized" arrivals, (mostly Afghanis, Iraqis and Sri Lankans), was intercepted near Ashmore Reef, off Australia's northwest coast.

According to the Australian Defense Department information, a Navy border patrol boat then approached the fishing boat and nine officers went on board. While the nine officers were there, there was an explosion which eventually sank the boat. Three people died in the incident, two were missing and dozens were injured. The two missing were later added to the fatalities. The casualty evacuation was fairly swift, taking the injured to mainland hospitals for treatment.

While police investigations are still going on, the Australian government will not release an official explanation as to what really occurred onboard the boat. However, some officials reportedly confirmed that some passengers, who were referred to as asylum seekers, spread petrol on the boat, threatening that they would burn it if they were not allowed to land in Australia.

These passengers reportedly had paid large sums of money to people smugglers in Indonesia. It was understood that they could not go back, either to Indonesia nor to their own countries to face further persecution. They were desperate. They had nothing to lose.

The tragedy invoked different reactions in Australia.

The opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, called for the return of Temporary Protection Visa legislation which would make it much harder for "unauthorized" arrivals to gain permanent residency. He claimed that Rudd's "softer" law had caused the pull factor: people come here in leaky boats because Australia sent out the message that it is easy to enter and stay here.

When interviewed on television, the medical officers who treated victims were visibly distressed seeing injuries of the burn victims. Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd did not dismiss the asylum seekers as "people we don't want to have in Australia", but lashed out at the people smugglers whom he called "scum of the earth" and condemned them to "rot in hell".

Most of us certainly do not regard people smugglers as model citizens. They do profit from other people's misery. However when emotions have subsided, a clearer picture comes to the surface - not pretty, but real - where they have their part in the tragic story.

The asylum seekers who arrive on boats are people who have fled their countries because they fear for their lives. They cannot find official avenues to plan their journeys to countries that will take them, so they seek out people smugglers, who unscrupulously take their life-savings and put them on unseaworthy vessels with a dubious promise and a good-luck wish.

Why do these people do it? Because they have no choice. They have to go somewhere.

Dewi Anggraeni , Melbourne

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