As the Australian territory closest to Indonesia, Christmas Island has in recent years become a favoured destination for refugee boats. And so it fell to the islanders to be awoken on Wednesday by the screams of the drowning as a small wooden boat carrying about 70 refugees was smashed by a wild sea into a limestone cliff.
“I saw a person dying in front of me, and there was nothing I could do to save them,” resident Kamar Ismail is reported to have said. “Babies, children, maybe three or four years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming ‘help, help, help’.” Lifejackets thrown down were tossed back by storm winds, the last illusion of a hope that had once borne the name Australia.
If 30 Australians drowned in Sydney Harbour it would be a national tragedy. But when 30 or more refugees drown off the Australian coast, it is a political question. Not that Australia has a refugee problem. Last year just 5,500 people sought asylum – less than 2% of the migrant intake. Yet Australia does have a dismal public life largely bereft of courage or humanity, and it has created a national myth that now poisons all sides of politics. The myth is that of the boat people. It is the idea that hordes of refugees will overrun Australia unless harsh policies of dissuasion and internment are employed.
How a nation in which one in four is a migrant embraced such a cruel and stupid idea is mysterious. Certainly hard times cannot be blamed: Australia is one of the few economies in the developed world that is still prospering, with unemployment dropping this month to 5.2%.But for more than a decade this myth, the issue of opportunism and electoral cynicism, has been a weeping sore at the heart of public life.
It was not always so. Under Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal governments in the 1970s, large numbers of refugees fleeing Vietnam in wretched boats were taken in without any great fuss. In 1989 Bob Hawke publicly wept after the Tiananmen Square massacre and announced that his Labor government would grant 20,000 Chinese students in Australia residency. Again, no great outcry.
Then, in the 1990s, a strange shift began. Under Paul Keating’s Labor government, detention centres started being built in remote regions where refugees were to be detained – effectively imprisoned – for up to 273 days without judicial review. In 1994, that limit was removed and mandatory detention became indefinite. Refugees have been detained for as long as seven years.
These policies were extended and hardened under John Howard’s Liberal government. It looked like losing the 2001 national election until a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, picked up a boatload of refugees off Christmas Island. In a masterful stroke of political theatre Howard had the freighter boarded by armed SAS troops, and refused the vessel permission to offload its human cargo in Australia.
Howard followed this move with the border protection bill, setting out his “Pacific Solution” whereby refugees would be incarcerated in Pacific island microstates, removed from the public gaze and legal rights. As loony as Hitler’s Lebensraum in reverse, his rhetoric of “border protection” struck a similarly popular note, creating a sense that the vast coast of Australia was under attack from a gathering tsunami of refugees; an unease powerfully reinforced in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In the new climate of fear, refugees and terrorism were seen as the same problem.
That all this was nonsense – many on the Tampa were Afghans, fleeing the Taliban, and almost all proved to be genuine asylum seekers – was beside the point. Lies were the currency that bought elections, and when Liberal ministers claimed refugees on a sinking boat had thrown their children overboard to save themselves, Howard struck a tone of outraged common decency, declaring: “I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that … They hang on to their children.” The claims were untrue, but they served to add to the growing mood of antipathy by robbing the boat people of the one thing they had left: their humanity.
From there on it was downhill. Howard famously stated, “We will decide who comes to this country and under what circumstances they come”, and went on to win the election.
The Labor party was profoundly traumatised by its 2001 election loss, and remains haunted by it (as noted by US embassy officials in a WikiLeaks cable published, coincidentally, today). While some on the left dissented, Labor’s leadership capitulated to Howard’s vision and went largely in lock-step with his policies.
The obscenity of these policies was rivalled only by their inanity. Mentally ill Australians were wrongly interned. Genuine refugees were returned to countries where they were killed, while those overstaying visas – such as 50,000 mostly British and US tourists – were allowed to stay illegally. Thousands of men, women and children lost precious years of their lives in internment. And yet the myth, wicked as it was, grew only more powerful.
On gaining the prime ministership earlier this year in a party coup, Labor’s Julia Gillard quickly set out to define one of the key issues in the coming election as, predictably, the boat people. Her policies were in essence a reworking of Howard’s with a ridiculous edge.
Without agreement with the East Timor government, she announced that refugees would be processed there, a repackaging of Howard’s derided Pacific Solution. Thereafter she missed no opportunity to appear on the bridge of navy ships peering apprehensively into the future.
The Liberal leader, Tony Abbott – like Gillard a migrant – went one better, running under the slogan “Stop the boats”, with a proposal ludicrous to contemplate in any other nation. If elected as prime minister he would have a “boat phone”. Every time a refugee boat was sighted, naval commanders were to tinkle Tony and he would personally oversee all action to turn the boat back.
If the exact death toll of the Christmas Island tragedy remains unknown, the likely response of both major parties is clear. History suggests both will further harden their policies in the name of humanity, arguing discouragement will help prevent further tragedies.
But of course the wretched of the earth, forced to choose between despair and hope, will continue to choose hope. So there will be more tragedies, and each one will confront Australians with the terrible and ever more insistent question of how, in some indefinable way, they have become complicit in such horror.
For much of the latter part of the 20th century Australia seemed to be opening up to something large and good. It believed itself a generous country, the land of the “fair go”. But in the video footage of the tragedy it is possible to look down the cliffs of Christmas Island and in the spin-drift blown up from below to hear not only the screams of the women and children, to see not only the drowned and the drowning and a broken boat, but also to glimpse the promise of what Australia had once been. And with each wave that rolls in, it breaks apart a little more.
First published: 2010-12-18 04:47 AM
Boat People: Peter Adams, Windgrove
Monday: ABC Online
Abbott offered to double refugee intake: Wilkie
By Alexandra Kirk and staff
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie says Opposition Leader Tony Abbott offered to double Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake during negotiations to form government earlier this year.
Yesterday Mr Abbott called for a return to Howard-era border protection policies in the wake of last week’s Christmas Island boat disaster, in which at least 30 asylum seekers lost their lives.
This morning Mr Wilkie accused the Opposition of playing to “dark sentiments” in the electorate, and said Mr Abbott should publicly restate his refugee offer.
“I’m interested to hear these comments from the Opposition at the moment, because during my negotiations with Tony Abbott immediately after the federal election …one of the issues he raised with me in an attempt to get my support was to double the humanitarian intake into this country from about 13,500 a year to about 27,000,” he said.
“So, you know, he certainly sees situations in which we would have a much more compassionate policy.
“This is a time to resurrect that offer of his and to say ‘Well, why can’t we take a little bit of pressure out of this pressure cooker and bring more people in through an orderly queue?'”
A spokesman for Mr Abbott says while the Opposition Leader canvassed a “modest increase” in the humanitarian intake, there was no suggestion of doubling it.
Andrew Wilkie, MR:
TIME TO REFORM AUSTRALIA’S ASYLUM SEEKER POLICY
The Independent Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, has called for Australia to increase its humanitarian refugee intake and double its efforts to put people smugglers out of business.
Mr Wilkie said the policies of both major parties on asylum seekers were lacking.
“The problem is complex and needs a sophisticated solution that deals with source, first asylum and transit countries, rather than simply focusing on border security,’’ Mr Wilkie said.
“The two key aspects of the solution are the humanitarian dimension and the people smugglers.’’
Mr Wilkie called on Australia to:
– double its humanitarian refugee intake, an offer made by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, in exchange for Mr Wilkie’s support to form Government;
– greatly increase its intelligence collection efforts against people smugglers and corrupt officials, especially in Indonesia;
-Re-energise disruption efforts, which played a key role in derailing people smugglers in 2002;
-launch a public information campaign in first asylum and transit countries to highlight to people considering relying on people smugglers the dangers and perils of travelling to Australia by boat.
Mr Wilkie called on Mr Abbott to repeat his commitment to double Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake and urged the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to match the promise.
“During negotiations, Mr Abbott did offer to double Australia’s humanitarian intake in return for my support,’’ he said.
“The offer was not reflected in Mr Abbott’s final proposal because by then the focus of negotiations had shifted to poker machine reform and better health funding in Southern Tasmania.’’
Mr Wilkie confirmed he had decided not to be involved in the Federal Government’s standing group on the Christmas Island asylum boat disaster.
“I was disappointed to learn that the group is nothing more than an additional layer of politicians between the operational agencies and the community,’’ he said.
“The community would be more quickly and accurately informed of the circumstances of the disaster if the operational agencies briefed the community directly.’’
Mr Wilkie said the Christmas Island asylum boat disaster demonstrated the urgent need for a new and more effective policy.
“The Christmas Island asylum boat disaster was a graphic human tragedy and highlighted the serious inadequacies in the Government’s asylum seeker policy,’’ he said.