Thirty-one boat people have been injured in an explosion on board a 20m wooden vessel detained off the Australian coast, the latest event in the continuing tragic story of refugees seeking asylum from world trouble spots. Three people were killed and two others are missing.
Cartels of profit seeking people smugglers are taking advantage of thousands displaced by war and other disasters. Desperate people are paying high prices for passages on unseaworthy crowded boats in an effort to find new lives. However, the voyages often have disastrous results.
Image from http://www.vietka.com/Boat_People_Images/BoatPeople.htm
This is one of the Vietnamese boats that set sail for Australia 30 years ago. The refugees could not have known the dangers they faced in the hands of unprincipled smugglers.
Those 49 people on board the 20km wooden boat involved in this week's explosion are thought to be mostly Afghan males hoping to gain refugee status in Australia after escaping the war in their homeland. However, their attempted voyage into Australian waters was illegal, bypassing lawful ways of applying for admission.
The people smugglers themselves face two years gaol if found guilty of flouting the laws.
The explosion and fire occurred seven hours after the vessel was intercepted by Australian Navy patrol boats which were ferrying them to the official refugee processing station on Christmas Island.
Boat people on the way to rescue on a naval barge. SMH
Four naval personnel on board the small boat were also slightly injured.
The explosion occurred in extremely remote and lonely seas north-west of Australia, 800 km from Darwin and 610 km north of Broome. It signalled the beginning of a dramatic rescue effort that continues even now.
Navy personnel on the patrol boats plucked the boat people from the sea and took them first two nautical miles to an oil platform on Ashmore Reef. Early treatment was given by a single naval doctor.
Worst injured were then taken three hours by helicopter to a remote World War II naval base at Truscott in the Kimberleys for transfer by jet plane to Darwin Hospital. This was the burns trauma centre used for victims of the Bali bombings.
Other injured boat people were taken to Broome and even to Perth, much further south.
This injured man is being admitted to a hospital in Perth. (Getty Image: Paul Kane)
The new Rudd Government in Australia is struggling to reach a fairer centre ground on the issue of asylum seekers arriving illegally in Australia, and at the same time stamp down severely on illegal arrivals spawned by smugglers.
Only this week the government inititiated talks with Indonesia in an effort to thwart smugglers working from its shores.
For many years under the Howard Government illegal asylum seekers, including whole families with young children, were detained indefinitely in isolated and harsh gaol-like conditions, some on the mainland and others on Pacific Islands. The Howard attempts to dissuade refugees were seen as flouting human rights laws.
Kevin Rudd came to power vowing to wipe the harshness of this system while remaining determined to stop the people smuggling racket.
Australia has always accepted numbers of bona vide refugees arriving legally, while sending back to their home countries those found to be simply attempting to jump immigration queues. Many thousands of Vietnamese people, for instance, have made excellent lives for themselves in Australia, contributing greatly to the society.
For many years now there has been an extensive immigration programme, accepting appropriate people who apply in legitimate fashion. Our population has grown by many millions in this way.
In fact, looking at history, all Australians (except the original Aboriginal inhabitants) are either boat or plane people!
However, the Rudd Government's task is to discourage any flood of illegal refugees while establishing orderly intakes of immigrants in numbers which our economy and the extremely fragile nature of the environment can handle.
Australia is a land of coastal habitation and large empty space inland, much of which is incapable of maintaining human life.
The plight of refugees is an increasing and difficult one in today's world. What would you do if you were in Kevin Rudd's position?
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