Fortress Australia claims more lives

On April 16, an explosion on board a small fishing boat, packed with 47 Afghan asylum seekers and two crew, killed five people and injured many more.

The incident occurred as the Australian navy was taking the vessel to the Christmas Island detention centre 2600 kilometres west of Australia.

It was the sixth vessel carrying asylum seekers to arrive in Australian waters this year and was found near Ashmore Reef, off north-western Australia, on April 15. All of the "intercepted" boats have been taken to Christmas Island for offshore "processing", as per the federal Labor government's anti-refugee policy.

Less than two weeks beforehand, 63 asylum seekers were picked up near Ashmore Island. Only days before that, a boat carrying 65 passengers, reported to be from Sri Lanka, had to be rescued when it ran aground on a reef in the Torres Strait.

Passengers on board the exploded vessel suffered severe injuries, and four navy personnel were reported to have received minor injuries. The April 17 Sydney Morning Herald said five asylum seekers were on life support.

A sign posted outside Broome hospital on April 16 warned of "mass casualties". By the end of April 17, 31 casualties had been airlifted to hospitals in Darwin and Perth. They admitted burn victims with partial thickness burns to as much as 50% of their bodies, as well as severe fractures, burns to their airways and facial injuries from flying debris.

Dr Len Notaras from the Royal Darwin Hospital told the ABC's AM on April 16 that among them were victims as young as 13 or 14.

The reason for the explosion remains unclear. What is clear is that the longer the Rudd government supports the war and occupation of Afghanistan, the more such tragedies will occur. People will continue to flee war and occupation — no matter the dangers they encounter in the process.

"This horrible event shows just how desperate people are", Riz Wakil — an Afghan man who travelled to Australia in 1999 as a refugee — told Green Left Weekly. "They are desperate people, fleeing because there is nothing left for them."

Home affairs minister Bob Debus reluctantly acknowledged the recent rise in the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous and difficult journey was due to people fleeing war-ravaged countries.

"The numbers of displaced and distressed people in the world and particularly in places like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and Pakistan has been increasing quite sharply and considerably during the last year", said Debus, according to ABC Online on April 17.

Wakil said the Rudd government was supporting these wars, and therefore must open its borders to the people trying to escape repression and persecution.

"Australia should openly allow these people to come", he said. "There is a threat to their safety and to their lives. Ninety percent of refugees coming to Australia have lost family members, and they genuinely need protection."

"The threat of the Taliban is an everyday thing for these people, and the so-called US-driven coalition against the 'war on terror' wants to boost [its] numbers.

"But it's not going to solve the problem … It will force extremists to mobilise and they have the power to cross borders. It's only going to create more refugees."

However, the Australian government has chosen to see the problem as an issue of "border security", and a matter of protecting "the Australian mainland from illegal arrivals", said Debus in an April 14 SMH report.

While the boatload of desperate Afghan refugees was being "escorted" across the ocean, Debus, foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith and immigration minister Chris Evans attended the so-called Bali Process summit on April 15 to discuss "human trafficking" and "people-smuggling" in the region.

The Australian reported that, during the summit, the three ministers urged Indonesia to "crack down on people-smugglers".

On April 18, ABC Online reported that three of the injured asylum seekers had been discharged and "turned over" to the immigration department.

Meanwhile, the article said, another boat reportedly carrying up to 100 asylum seekers was approaching Australia. The navy was waiting to "intercept" it when it arrived in Australian waters.