The human faces of asylum seekers haunt Australia

Two months ago, it was reported that Australia was preparing for an uptick of children in detention mutilating themselves. At the time, there were around 700 children. These children `in detention’ are imprisoned asylum seekers and migrant children, and children of asylum seekers and migrants.

Two months later, almost to the day, on Wednesday, December 15, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror.

The dead were fished out of the rough seas. The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island.

Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’. The event is now commonly referred to, in the news media, as `the asylum-seeker boat tragedy.’ The Prime Minister said the full death toll may never be known. She was more right than she knew.

This is not the first time Australia has confronted an asylum-seeker boat tragedy. In 2001, there was the infamous Children Overboard affair.

On October 7, 2001, a fishing boat, the Olong, was filled with asylum seekers and headed for Christmas Island when it was caught by the HMAS Adelaide, north of Christmas Island. Under orders from the government, the warship fired warning shots, boarded several times, and finally forced the boat to turn back. The boat was old, battered, and overloaded, with over 200 people on board. The engines failed. The Adelaide took the boat in tow, and waited for instructions from the government. Then the boat literally began to fall apart and sink. Parents held their children in the air, to alert the navy of their presence on board. There were 53 children on board the Olong. The then Prime Minister John Howard claimed the parents were throwing their children overboard. They were not. The evidence from the Australian Navy showed, immediately, they were not throwing their children overboard. But the claim was out there, in the air. Refugees and asylum seekers were somehow less than human.

This most recent asylum-seeker boat tragedy is said to have put a human face on the `asylum issue’. Here’s how Nick Clegg, of the BBC, describes the situation: “Australia’s asylum seeker debate is often conducted as if the people heading for its shores were an abstraction, with the term “boat people” almost shorn of its human meaning. With such harrowing images from Christmas Island broadcast on early evening news shows – which only 24 hours earlier had dwelt more happily on the visit to Sydney of Oprah Winfrey – millions of Australians would have seen the anguished faces of those seeking to reach its shores, and witnessed the lengths to which they would go to get there. Put simply, it was shockingly real….Whatever its outcome, after the tragedy on Christmas Island the debate has a human face.”

Others had a similar response: “In Australia, perhaps for the first time, the disaster gave the asylum-seeker issue a human face. Not even those who dismiss boat people as “queue-jumpers” could have failed to be moved by footage of men, women and children screaming for help as their vessel was dashed to bits.”

The asylum-seeker debate, or situation, now has a human face. Prime Minister Gilliard says there will be no repeat of the children overboard affair in dealing with the situation. She says as well that the full death count will never be known. In a nation in a world in which human beings must sew their lips together, must mutilate themselves, must perish in the rough seas in order to be endowed with a human face, where does one begin to measure the full extent of the death count? The human faces of asylum seekers – not the asylum seeker debate nor the asylum seeker situation – haunt Australia and the world.


(Photo Credit: Australia Human Rights Commission)