An Uncertain Maritime Incident: boat explosion survivors arrive in Australia

Thirty-one casualties from yesterday’s boat explosion of asylum seekers are being treated in Australian hospitals. The boat carrying 50 people exploded near Ashmore Reef after being intercepted by the Australian Navy the previous afternoon. Three were killed and two more are missing. Another five of the injured are fighting for their lives with burns to 70 per cent of their bodies. The incident was politicised by WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett and Federal Immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone opening up a Pandora’s Box of anti-immigrant hysteria reminiscent of the unsavoury mood that enveloped Australia after the 2001 Tampa crisis.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave further information about the refugees at a doorstop in Sydney today. He said 31 passengers were transferred from HMAS Childers and HMAS Albany by helicopter to Truscott in Western Australia. Eight refugees with serious injuries were sent to Darwin and another was sent to Broome while the rest went to Perth. Another 13 passengers remain on HMAS Albury sailing to Darwin. Rudd refused to speculate on the cause of the explosion. “[I]t’s still too early to confirm the cause of the explosion on the vessel in question,” he said. “In line with that advice I will not be speculating on the cause of the explosion today until that investigation is concluded.”

Within hours of the incident, WA Premier Colin Barnett claimed the cause was sabotage. Barnett said refugees doused the deck with petrol before igniting it. Today he was in damage control saying his information was from the State’s Emergency Operations Unit, relaying information from Northern Command. “I was asked a question on this, I had only 20 minutes earlier had a briefing on the situation and I simply conveyed in good faith the information that had been provided to me,” he said.

Opposition front bencher Sharman Stone went further and blamed the Government for the explosion saying “You can’t announce a soft policy and expect people not to lose their lives through people smuggling efforts”. She told last night’s Lateline the Government had created a dangerous situation with its policy on asylum seekers. She said asylum seekers were coming in larger numbers by sea since the August 2008 changes which ended the so-called Pacific Solution and got rid of Temporary Protection Visas. Since then, she said, “a green light flashed in a lot of people smuggling business headquarters, and we saw these boats begin to come on down.”

Her comments set off a firestorm of radio talkback reaction mostly hostile to asylum seekers redolent of the 2001 days of the Dark Victory.  Stone admitted she did not want to see a return to the Pacific Solution where detainees were held on Nauru and PNG’s Manos Island. She couldn’t explain what a Liberal Government would do differently other than telling Indonesia Australia was serious about people smuggling. Stone was assisted by articles in The Australian which sought to beat up the asylum issue.

Foreign editor Greg Sheridan agreed it was “softening Australian border controls” which had to “act as a magnet for illegal immigrants.” But he also admitted there is a general rise in asylum seekers around the world. The UN High Commission for Refugees says there were 383,000 asylum applications worldwide in 2008 up 12 percent since 2007. Barely 4,700 of these came to Australia the vast majority by air.

China accounts for 24 percent of the 2008 total (Sri Lanka and India are second and third). Because they arrive by plane, the Chinese immigrant are not demonised by the media as Andrew Bartlett notes. A secondary reason, says Bartlett, is there are “diplomatic sensitivities in our politicians drawing too much attention to the fact, which would mainly serve to remind people of how appalling the human rights record of the Chinese government continues to be.”

There are no such sensitivities about those who take the perilous sea journey. In 2000, John Howard called them “queue jumpers” appealing to the Australian sense of order. The implication is those who arrive without documentation take unfair advantage over those who have completed applications for refugee status overseas in order to enter Australia with a valid visa. However many refugees (such as Afghan Hazaras) come from places where there is no orderly asylum process and risk imprisonment or death in leaving their own countries.

It is a small problem. Just 18 boats (including 6 this year) have been intercepted since 2005 carrying 300 passengers. There is a new $400 million immigration detention centre at Christmas Island’s North West Cape while the government proposes to spend another $120 million on detention operations this year. Refugee Council President John Gibson said it was important to learn from past mistakes before discussing asylum seeker issues. Gibson reminded commentators and the public the act of seeking protection from persecution was sanctioned under Australian law. “As a mature democratic nation…we need to treat asylum seekers and handle their claims in a manner which is consistent with the ‘fair go’ ethos of which we are rightly proud”, he said.

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