Treat refugees humanely

THIRTY children were among 50 "boat people" who drowned near Australia in a tragic incident in the last week of September 2013. The boat was carrying about 80 "asylum seekers".

About 50 people were listed as missing, most of them children who did not know how to swim. They were travelling from Indonesia by boat but they were not Indonesian; they were from Syria and Lebanon.

Australian immigration rules might not be enough to stop asylum seekers from making the dangerous crossing to Australia. Apparently the boat was hired from an Indonesian and it could have been an Indonesian agent who was escorting the asylum seekers.

According to an Indonesian intelligence report "the illegal immigrants were from Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Lebanon."

The report said about 400 boats had arrived in Australia over the past one year before this incident. The boat that capsized was heading for Christmas Island, which is a frequent destination for "refugee boats".

When the boat carrying the asylum seekers started having mechanical problems, a man on board used a radio to call the Australian coast guard for help. But it was to no avail. The Australian coast guard did not come to the aid of the asylum seekers even though its officers were told that most of those in the boat were children. The coast guard had even assured the boat people of "help".

As a result of the no show, children and women drowned. Some men who could swim managed to reach shore. The boat had floundered for over 24 hours before it sank.

The flow of "refugee boats" from Indonesia and Sri Lanka has been a hot political issue in Australia. Its newly elected prime minister, Tony Abbott, had used this issue before the last election to convince voters of his tough stand against the sharp increase in the number of refugee boats heading to Australia.

Canberra had even stopped providing regular information on asylum boats which were turned away or faced emergencies at sea.

The policy and action of the new Australian government were so tough and cruel that many countries and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International accused Australia of shirking its moral obligation to help the unfortunate people who were fleeing their countries to save their lives.

Australia's immigration minister Scott Morrison had issued two statements against the survivors' claims that the authority took over 24 hours to respond to the May Day call. But the survivors said they talked to coast guards over the radio.

They had even told the coast guards that the children did not know how to swim and they did not want to seek asylum in Australia – they just wanted them to save their lives. Alas! The Australian coast guard did not budge. The boat flipped, drowning the children and women.

The question that arises is not what is right or wrong, but our humanity – our conscience.

The term "boat people" originated from the time when Vietnamese refugees started to flee from their homeland. Innumerable disasters occurred, but all ended with the end of the Vietnam War.

The present government of Australia has taken these tough new measures to stop refugee boats heading for Australia. Abbott has also offered Indonesian villagers money for providing intelligence on smuggling gangs and proposed to buy fishing boats often used to smuggle migrants.

This Australian action has drawn stern criticism from the international press, human right organisations, the UN and other nations.

Australia, however, has expressed its "deepest sympathies" to those affected by this tragedy. The statement said, "Any loss of life is tragic" and "this latest incident again reflects the dangers of people smuggling".

While one agrees with the tragic parts of the statement, no one can possibly support the action, that the navy of "Big and Mighty" Australia could not save some innocent children from being drowned, although they cried for their lives for almost 24 hours!

Ironically, only last week, Abbott criticised the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for not supporting the Australian government regarding the incident.

Incidentally, an official report prepared by the Australian government on asylum seekers reveals that a significant gap between Australian human rights obligations under international law and the current treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Without going into the details of the Australian government's policy on asylum seekers, one can hardly say that policies are made by human beings to turn away asylum seekers – mostly when they arrive or attempt to arrive by boat. But it should be remembered that they are the most desperate of people.

They are only going to the "Big and Mighty" to save their lives. There is no harm in being a little humane. After all, we are all human.

Khairul Bashar is a former journalist and has served in the UN. He now lectures on Communication, Journalism and Political Science at a university. Comments: