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Friday, 17 April 2009

Australia's Boat People Dilemma after Remote Explosion

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

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?


  1. What a difficult situation June. I honestly cannot imagine. The difficulties with turning back desperate homeless people is a question we would all look at. Difficult answers to increasingly complex questions

  2. LINDA
    I think the best our government can do is to judge each case on its merits, and come down really hard on the smugglers themselves. The problem is to find the real perpetrators who certainly wouldn't be the ones on the leaky boats.

  3. Two years doesn't seem very much to deter the smugglers, that needs to be reviewed and more appropriate sentences/penalties applied.

  4. It's so sad! Sometimes we don't realize just how good we have it until we read something like this. By the way, we've had company and I haven't been able to get back to your novel this week, but hopefully after Sunday I'll have time again. It is great and I am enjoying it.

  5. Hi June, Can you imagine getting on a boat like the one in the picture and setting sail for another country? I am sure each case should be evaluated but how on earth can you take it one case at a time? This surely poses a very difficult situation for your government. Great post.

  6. One of the complicating things about this FRANCES is that the people who man the boats do it at the direction of leading smugglers and have no idea of what trouble they will be in. They may even think they are doing something okay and legal.

    The real criminals in the situation are the main smugglers who act anonymously.

  7. G'day SYLVIA
    You're right about the misery. These people come from such war zones as Afghanistan - what more can we say?

    However, while helping where we can, Australia must still make sure we don't end up having similar problems arise here.

    Small numbers are fine, but we are very close to Asian countries here - a short boat ride. People displaced by war gradually make there way south, finally to Asia.

    So far we have been able to include many such people in an orderly way and it's worked out well for everyone.

  8. JUDY
    Yes, assessment must be a difficulty. However immigration officials apparently work to discover the realities of each situation, including political and ethnic backgrounds which would point to the bona fides of claims for asylum.

  9. Good Morning June
    The story about these people is sad,they had enough sorrow already some times I wonder about the plans of human kind,to run for your life with nothing left but hope what a decision to make how courageous..To be the Minister and a human at the same time it must be difficult to be restricted in what you can do when it comes to matters of the heart,he was clearly taken by the drama.
    I believe in one world one people but you just cant get let things get out of control,in my homeland things are out of control because of open door policies.
    Thank you June for this post I will have some food for thought about this subject.
    Sunny day from Briz.

  10. June, thank you for bringing this story to light for those of us who don't hear world news like we used to.

    The ones who traffic in human lives, the ones at the top, need the severest penalties we can rightfully impose. I hope they are arrested, tried and serve time for their crimes.

  11. A difficult question. As you point out, many of these people have no idea that the smugglers are just out for their money...

    That says a lot about the desperation of these people - leaving behind everything in hope of a better life. I think all countries who can afford it should take in refugees - it is our duty as compassionate fellow beings.

    I also think governments should work much harder to helping these war-torn or poverty-stricken countries so that their peoples do not feel the need to escape.

  12. MONA
    Yes the Minister Bob Debus was obviously quite upset about the boat people deaths. It's become obvious that Australians generally are keen to know about the welfare of the injured, who are getting absolutely first class medical treatment for their horrific burns.

    It's so important that people do get to know how dangerous this people smuggling racket is for those wanting to come here. And hopefully they will take the legal path and apply to come rather than risk their lives in trying to jump the queue. Sounds simplistic, but what other path should there be?

    I do think Australia is doing what it sensibly can in allowing people to come and live here. If arrivals are orderly we can help refugees with their new lives, with good education, health and other services. But if it becomes a disorganised flood we could properly help no-one .

  13. Hi CROW
    The Australian government believes the Mr Bigs of people smuggling are shadowy people operating around the edges of the world's trouble spots, and are thus very hard to find.

    It is working at high levels in affected countries trying to control the clandestine operations. Our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the people smugglers as 'scum of the earth who should rot in hell'. They rob refugees of their savings and put their lives at great peril, for personal profit.

  14. LADYFI
    I think the Iraq War and similar conflicts were scandalous, creating huge unwarranted misery. Countries involved in that need to help redress the balance.

    Against the wishes of most ordinary Australians the Howard Government helped Bush in his attack of Iraq. The present Australian government came to power with a mandate including withdrawing soldiers from Iraq while working to establish stability there.

    In many ways it's as though we are trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted.

    We must continue to admit refugees in an orderly and humane way, but the refugees themselves have to play their part. There is no doubt that many do try to jump the queues and others still even pretend to be refugees afraid for their lives when they are not.

    It is so hard to discover the rights and wrongs while helping those in true need. A difficult situation - indeed.

  15. Its a sad story and these poor people are being continually traumatised and used. Their lives are changed forever yet again. As if they havent suffered enough. How desperate they must have been and conned by these smugglers. I was talking to a young Taxi driver originally from Somalia when I was in Brisbane. He was telling me how he and his family had to move from country to country because they kept getting kicked out. He is so pleased to be in Australia. And I know there are horror stories too. Like the young Somali children my teacher sister talks to me about who who openly talk about how they killed people. And they are in primary school. Tough to manage the different cultures. But manage we must. There is homeless and then there is really homeless. Refugees need help from someone. It's tough and I am sure Kev will make a good decision. Great post June.

  16. G'day LILLY and welcome back from your holiday.

    Yes, those who would be intolerant of refugees need to put themselves in the shoes of those dispossessed from their homeland and all that has been familiar to them, including loved ones.

    I wish Kev luck on this one.

  17. Excellent reporting June. I was unaware of this type of thing happening in Australia. We have a lot of issues about it in America. I saw a documentary on it actually and found that the way that it is handled is often too harsh. Interesting parallels here, our countries have a lot of similarities. :D

    I think that people everywhere need to be thinking about why this is happening... maybe we can find a solution.

    You've hit the nail on the head about this - why is it happening? If only we could wipe out wars (whatever the cause) and pull together there would be money and goodwill to make things better for many many more people. Dreams dreams.

    In mid last century Autralia had a shocking attitude to refugees and,indeed, was absolutely racist in its laws. People had to pass difficult English tests if they had black skins, in order to come here. It was called the 'White Austalia Policy'.

    As a result our society was terribly boring for a long time, until things chnaged and people began to come here through more open immigration policies. Today, I love to go to Sydney for instance and luxuriate in the wonderful array of faces and languages and cultural phenomena.

    We are now known throughout the world for our cuisine. Our restaurant culture is fascinating - you can get cooking from almost every nation in the world. Australian cooking is regarded as excellent, influenced by a fusion of different food styles.

    In the main people of many races live side by side in harmony, learning from each other in every phase of existence.

    In many ways this very harmony supports our present caution about migration. We want things to be orderly so that we can do the right thing by everyone.

  19. june-

    after 9/11 and with current economic conditions, the world has become a cruel place. I am a firm believer that what makes US and given what you have written about Australia extraordinary places, is the ability to work hard and have a life that is better than what one could have elsewhere. So sad that the world has become so small--I am hoping that this will change given the change in political leaders--we need to work together and encourage growth--best c

    Australians do work very hard - often too hard in my book. I think we have to find a way to become more balanced in this direction, and I think realisation of this may be happening now.

    Australians who were once refugees (and there are many of them) are as hard working as anybody. Our nation would not be the same without them.

  21. You have been selected for the Honest Weblog award.

  22. It's not dissimilar to our problems with refugees from Haiti and Cuba. Untold numbers are lost trying to reach freedom and a better life.

  23. Thanks Martha/Sophie for your kindness. I'm into honesty!

    Sad sad - when will it end?

  25. Thanks for your comment on my blog! I thought you were taking a break from blogging...
    Anyways, I 'm back & feel terrified about smugglers intruding. As bad as global terrorism. Feel helpless, really, but you do express yourself like an established WRITER!

  26. SMITA
    I'm afraid I must disagree with you about boat people. Most of them are refugees fleeing impossible situations which they have not brought upon themselves. Given the opportunity most who've been able to stay in Australia are good citizens, making a valuable contribution.

    So far as I see it, the difficulty is establishing balance in numbers so that we may maintain services for all who need them.

  27. We have been impacted greatly by illegal immigrants here in California. "Coyotes" aka smugglers take people across the harsh desert for a fee. Only sometimes, they leave the people on their own and they die. Or other times they load them as human cargo into a truck, and the people die because of the heat crossing the desert.

    If the political and economic conditions in these countries were better there wouldn't be the flood. But in the case of many, they're trying to escape generations of corruption and they see no way but out.

    However, one does have to be careful with the numbers that could come over in droves --as they have in California.

  28. KANANI
    It is a world wide problem and no less horrific for that ...

  29. I think it's a shame that John Howard is being portrayed as the evil one by many commentators.
    A genuinely decent man, who tried to do the best for all.

  30. Are you an Australian ANONYMOUS?
    It's a shame you don't declare yourself a little more and we could have a face to face conversation.
    John Howard may have been a decent man to his family, but his policies certainly didn't achieve 'the best for all' in my view.

  31. Hi June, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, so true they are. My aunt was one of the boat people heading for America, but somehow ended up in Greenland. Australia took her in as a refugee, seeing her abilities to speak English and Vietnamese advantageous. The immigrant journey is such a long fight- I have seen it play out in so many ways now, it’s almost a microcosm for what every single person goes through: The journey to freedom and happiness. As a high school student with immigrant parents, there is so much pain that goes into the journey. And how hard it is for a country to be the decider in this. This is what also struck me in your blog: the self-interests that bind a country; it is certainly not only Australia that is looking out for its people. I will definitely include what I've learned from you in my next art piece, thanks. May the boat people and other refugees be remembered.


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