Five Australia-bound Tamil asylum seekers vanished in shark-infested waters near the Cocos Islands over May 5-9. They were seeking help for the 59 other men, women and children aboard a wooden fishing boat that had travelled from Sri Lanka and spent more than 20 days at sea.
Australian border patrol had let the boat flounder without food, fuel or water for at least eight days before the refugees were finally rescued on May 9. But the Labor federal government has refused to call an inquiry, referring the tragedy to federal police and immigration.
The boat was “being tracked” by Australian customs when it sent out a distress signal on April 30. No rescue effort was made, but a passing merchant ship delivered supplies. Maritime and customs authorities at Cocos Islands finally began a search and rescue when the boat didn’t arrive on May 5.
By then, the boat had run out of fuel again and was even further off course. Five of the 64 Tamils on board had become so desperate they made a raft from tyre tubes and set out in open seas to try to find a passing ship.
Four foreign-flagged merchant tankers were ready to rescue them sooner, but were “awaiting approval from Australian authorities to take them onboard”, ABC Online said on May 7.
Crew from the Russian ship MV Postojna, who eventually carried out the rescue, said all the refugees were weak and some were seasick, the May 11 Australian said. Twelve children were on board, including a 10-month-old baby, a two-year-old and a three-year-old.
The Australian said the crew said schools of sharks swarmed around the ship and the small boat, “and the five men may have been eaten”. An aerial search spotted the men's life jackets, but the search was called off on May 9.
Captain Oleg Chechulin told the Australian: “It’s my opinion they panicked because they can’t see future.”
The 59 survivors were taken to the Christmas Island detention centre. The nightmare they endured desperately trying to cross the Indian Ocean in an 18-metre wooden boat to seek protection, was lost on the Labor government.
Immigration minister Chris Evans said on May 10 they would be subject to the government’s three-month visa freeze imposed on refugees from Sri Lanka.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul told Green Left Weekly the survivors won't get access to lawyers. “We don't know who they are and so we cannot visit them”, he said.
Even the fact that 64 people were crammed onto a boat on which 30 would be too many leaves little excuse for the negligence of defence and customs personnel.
Australian customs and border patrol often “track” boats as they travel towards Australian waters. They do this not to ensure their safety, but to alert the navy to intercept the voyage.
This isn’t the first time refugees have died on the Rudd government’s watch. In November, 12 died after their boat capsized; in April 2009 SIEV 36 exploded, killing five, while under navy control; and sometimes boats simply disappear on the ocean.
Australia’s interference in Indonesia has caused refugees to take even riskier journeys to bypass the country. In November, four boats carrying 100 people tried the same journey directly from Sri Lanka to Australia's south-west coast. The Sri Lankan navy caught and arrested all of them.
The gruesome deaths of the five men are a direct result of Australia’s racist anti-refugee policy. The law of the sea requires people in such conditions to be rescued straight away.
But refugees have become the dehumanised victims of fearmongering in Australian electoral politics.
Coalition opposition leader Tony Abbott wants Australians to fear them for no other fact than they come here in desperation. He wants Australians to see the five perished men — and all refugees escaping war, persecution and poverty — as a threat to the nation.
In a television advertisement aired on May 10, Abbott called for “Real action: immigration. Stop illegals now”. The ad showed a map of Australia with five red arrows heading towards it.
The arrows were labelled: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It also had a picture of a boat with refugees on board: battered, overcrowded, sitting low in the water amid an endless ocean landscape.
To date it is the most explicit attempt by the Liberal/National opposition to use racism against the Rudd Labor government and its “failure” to persecute refugees enough. The ad targeted countries like Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to provoke anti-Muslim hysteria.
And Indonesia and Sri Lanka were included to make it clear that all refugees arriving by boat are to be feared. Many refugees travel through Indonesia and are found near the Ashmore Islands. A third of refugees that have arrived in the last year have been Tamils fleeing Sri Lankan government repression.
Abbott's not ashamed of playing the race card. He told the Menzies Research Centre on May 4 he feared that “millions” of refugees “might at least be tempted to swap their current existence for the opportunities of a new life in Australia”.
“The only way to reduce and eventually to stop the boats is to deny their passengers the goal they seek, which is permanent residency in Australia.”
Abbott also foreshadowed the Coalition’s refugee policy. It included reintroducing temporary protection visas and offshore processing, as well as having “the last-resort option to turn around boats”.
Greens Senator Bob Brown called the ad xenophobic. Former Liberal MP Bruce Baird condemned it as “fearmongering”.
He backed calls from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) 20 other unions for the federal government to uphold its international obligations to refugees, and to not exploit fear and xenophobia.
The letter, signed by union leaders such as ACTU president Sharan Burrow, said: “In using refugees as pawns in an election game, Australia is failing in its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention ... Protocol to not discriminate in the treatment of refugees on the basis of race, religion or country of origin.”
It pointed out that “Sri Lankans and Afghans are being singled out purely based on race”, which is not only racist, but illegal.
But the tragedy at Cocos Island, the racist ad and the letter were all ignored by the federal government, which instead announced a swathe of border control measures in the budget on May 12.
It included funding for eight new patrol boats and $15.7 million for a “dedicated vessel” at Ashmore Reef”; $32.9 million over two years to Indonesia to fund detention centres and extra policing against “people smuggling”; and $143 million to expand Australia's detention centres, including Christmas Island, Darwin, Villawood and Port Augusta.
Money for Australia’s “humanitarian migration program” did not receive a boost, and the overall refugee intake remained unchanged.