Refugees: targeted in transit, forgotten when they arrive

July 26, 2009

More than three months after a fatal explosion on an asylum seeker boat, only one new detail has come to light: Northern Territory police still have not formally identified the five people killed from the blast, ABC Online said on July 18.

The Australian Federal Police have charged two Indonesian men, allegedly crew members onboard the boat. NT police said they have done more than 200 interviews and even travelled to Jakarta to investigate the incident.

"One juvenile who was on the boat is being treated in Perth and has not been medically cleared for interview," ABC Online said, "but they have taken statements from all other survivors."

The whereabouts and wellbeing of these "others" has not been revealed. The May 1 Australian said six of the injured were detained after their release from the Royal Perth Hospital.

No information has been released since.

The mainstream media has preferred to cover the few boats that have since arrived, marking concern over the capacity of the offshore Christmas Island detention centre, where all refugees arriving by boat are taken.

The 194 passengers on board a boat intercepted on June 28 and the 73 detained by the navy on July 13 were all believed to be from Sri Lanka — Tamils fleeing genocide in their homeland.

"A third or so of the recent arrivals have been people from Sri Lanka", immigration minister Chris Evans said on July 19.

In response, Evans travelled to Sri Lanka on July 22 to "discuss migration and people smuggling issues", the Age said on July 19. "We do need to strengthen our arrangements with Sri Lanka, to have a better cooperation on this issue", Evans said.

Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror said on July 24 that six Australian immigration department officials were "being sent to Sri Lanka to monitor the situation and adopt measures to prevent Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia".

The Australian government's refugee policy is increasingly focused on pushing other countries to toughen its crackdowns on "people smuggling".

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith were recently in Malaysia to push for moves to curb the passage of asylum seekers through the so-called transit country.

The measures included tougher penalties for asylum seekers and "people smuggling". It included Australian funding to ramp up police action against asylum seekers. It is a similar strategy to what the Australian government is pushing for in Indonesia.

The Malaysia visit coincided with a media frenzy about a "warning" of a "wave of boat people". The June 30 Sydney Morning Herald said "as many as 10,000 asylum seekers are waiting in Malaysia to transit … to Australia".

But the small number of Sri Lankan Tamils who have made it as far as Christmas Island is in no way comparable to the 300,000 Tamil civilians imprisoned by the Sri Lankan government in concentration camps.

Nor is the alleged 10,000 waiting desperately in Indonesia comparable to the 1.8 million Afghans who live in temporary camps in Pakistan, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

This year, 16 boats have made it close enough to Australian waters to warrant interception and detention. They carried little more than 900 people.

Newspapers, like the Age on June 29, say this is "a cause for concern". And the government gives great attention to refugees in transit, either waiting in desperation in other countries or making the perilous journey by boat.

However, once they arrive, the concern for who they are or where they are sent greatly diminishes. In the case of the boat explosion, the Afghan refugees who were injured are likely detained and face a very uncertain future. But the front page news reports on their plight are entirely absent.

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