Christmas Island Tragedy: Refugees Dying To Live
Being home in Australia for the holidays means I’ve quickly become reacquainted with the pervading social issues here. The plight of Middle Eastern and Asian refugees known as “asylum seekers” who travel by rickety boats in the hopes of washing ashore onto our great Southern land is by far one of the country’s most divisive and highly debated matters.
Conscious-minded citizens have been shaken here since last week’s tragic news of 30 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers dying when their wooden boat smashed apart on rocks off the coast of Christmas Island, a territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean (pictured above). Eighteen bodies are still missing, including babies ripped from parents’ arms as they were horrendously smashed up against sharp rocks in the violent ocean. Police divers confirmed the search for their remains has been called off.
“We are talking about very rough seas, very rocky and difficult coastline and so it may be that there are bodies of people who traveled on the boat that are never recovered,” Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard said during a press conference earlier this week.
Closer in proximity to Indonesia, Christmas Island has been a destination for refugee boats leaving from that nation since the late 1980s. After the Tampa controversy in 2001, when the Australian government stopped a Norwegian ship, MV Tampa, from disembarking 438 rescued refugees at Christmas Island (even after it was claimed the adults had gone crazy and were throwing their children into the water in protest at being turned away) then Prime Minister John Howard excised the island from Australia’s migration zone, meaning asylum seekers who landed there couldn’t automatically apply to the Australian government for refugee status. Six years later in 2007, detention centers on nearby islands were decommissioned and Christmas Island became the main processing center for the region. There are now 2390 people detained there with numbers continuing to grow.
Amnesty International affiliate site RethinkRefugees.com.au says the vast majority of cases of asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat are found to be genuine refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Many give up their life savings to “people smugglers” who charge up to US$10,000 per person, per passage. In a country that’s almost the same size geographically as the United States but has less than a quarter of the population, many have called for Australia’s government to at least double the country’s humanitarian refugee intake. This has been ruled out year after year, even though there are currently only 1.1 refugees for every 1000 people.
This most recent event, occurring during an already emotional holiday season, is a gut-wrenching reminder of the heavy price desperate people pay in their search for a new life.