Australia: Asylum Seeker Boat Tragedy Shocks Nation

A boat carrying up to 100 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers crashed into sharp cliffs off Christmas Island in Australia on December 15 killing at least 30 people. Dozens of locals witnessed the shipwreck and tried to help drowning men, women, and children as they struggled against rough waves.

Stop the boats - Australian Liberal Party election poster

Opposition leader Tony Abbott had the campaign slogan 'Stop the boats' in the August 2010 election (via Political Tarot)

The tragedy throws back into light the hard-line policies of Australia's government towards asylum seekers in the past years, which according to critics teeters on xenophobic. The most controversial initiative is the mandatory holding of refugees arriving by boat in offshore detention centers.

Refugees were a major issue in the August federal election won by center-left Labor Party. A day before the boat crash, U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that the U.S. was critical of Australia's politics regarding asylum seekers, finding the debate disproportionate to the numbers of migrants actually arriving this way.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's refugee policy has come under harsh attack from both the right and left, with intense debate taking hold of the media and blogosphere.

Hoyden from Town pays tribute to the lives lost at sea:

I simply can’t process this very well. Those poor, poor people. Dozens dead and Christmas Island locals devastated by being unable to save more from the rough seas and razor rocks.

Of course the usual suspects are dusting off their usual lines. No matter how many asylum seeker myths are debunked by simple fact, the old adage remains sadly apposite: a lie can get around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

From Duckpond:

The Prime Minister blames the people smugglers for the vessel carrying about 100 refugees that smashed up on the rocks of Christmas Island.

That argument ignores the reasons that people take enormous risks getting onto, often unsafe vessels to make the last leg of their journey across the sea, which as this disaster illustrates can be treacherous. Most of these people are fleeing war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and who can blame them. Indonesia may be hospitable, but they are still prepared to throw the dice to leave.

Detention is intentionally punitive. The attitudes of the Gillard Government appear similar to those practiced by Howard without the cost of detaining refugees in Nauru.

Right-wing News Limited commentator Andrew Bolt was quick to respond to the tragedy, calling for Gillard's resignation and accusing her of having “blood on her hands” for not continuing as a harsh a policy against asylum seekers as her predecessor (it was later followed up with another column arguing the same). Bolt's strong remarks sparked a passionate debate in other blogs and in the comments to his article:

Adam C of Melbourne Posted at 8:44 AM December 16, 2010

If we weren't such a mean spirited country and took a more active and safer approach to bringing these desperate people here this would not have occured. For those of you that support strict asylum policies these deaths are your fault.

Its Obvious! of Melbourne Posted at 8:47 AM December 16, 2010

A “compassionate” approach will only increase the flood of refugees-these people are not fleeing persecution but seeking economic relief. A persecuted person would seek the nearest available safe place-that is NOT Australia.Fact is, our asylum seeker welfare policies oil well-greased people smuggling rackets and these people wend their way to an unlikely place far away.This happens because we have an unlikely (highly promotable to the criminals that run the boat people trade ) asylum seeker policy and generous social welfare.Also helper networks here! This loss of life is terrible and people smugglers are to blame-along with soft government. By the way-lots of English lost their lives in shipwrecks all along our coast too!

Elizabeth Meryl Streep Posted at 8:49 AM December 16, 2010

I agree that any Prime Minister with “blood on their hands” should resign. John Howard should have resigned over the lies about Iraq war! A country where the majority of these asylum seekers are fleeing from!!! John Howard should have resigned over the lies aboot Tampa and “children overboard”. Hundreds of asylum seekers were demonised and made to suffer just so he could win an election! John Howard should have resigned over the $300 million of bribes paid to Saddam Hussein by AWB – under his very nose! This money was used by Sadam to kill and torture his people – Iraqis who pay evil people smugglers to escape the country because they feared for their lives! Yessiree – I totally support Prime Ministers resigning if they drectly or indirectly contributed to the deaths and injuries of innocent civilians! Don't you agree Mr Bolt and all your racist redneck supporters???

Several bloggers also discussed Bolt's piece. On Club Troppo:

… Bolt’s argument contains an assumption that continuation of the Pacific/Nauru Solution would have resulted in ongoing low arrival numbers. As I argued in my previous post canvassing abolition of universal mandatory detention, that assumption is highly dubious given that it only became general public knowledge shortly before the Howard government was defeated in 2007 that most of the Nauru detainees were being progressively granted protection visas and allowed into Australia. We can’t be certain that numbers of boat arrivals would have risen inexorably from that point irrespective of which party was in power, but it’s a reasonable suspicion that demagogues like Bolt fail even to mention let alone seriously consider.


Some of the axe-grinders who seek to mislead Australians that there is some magic solution to the asylum seeker issue may well be sincere, but they’re certainly not helping to engender rational debate aimed at achieving a workable if unavoidably imperfect policy.

Blogger Pure Poison slams Bolt's article as “repulsive and ghoulish”, saying:

The bodies are still being recovered, and at least one News Ltd columnist is already trying to capitalise politically on the Christmas Island tragedy

Pure Poison then updates the post with a link to a “spectacular comeback” to Bolt by Jack Marx in a blog on the Daily Telegraph. He quotes from the piece:

There are few postures quite as serpentine as that of the bully who disguises his cruelty as some kind of love. Sadistic teachers of old were fond of it – the furrowed brow and fraudulent look of regret as they caned you “for your own good” – and the history of xenophobia is rich with creeps who dolled up their barbarism as a humane sympathy for the very people they sought to oppress. The asylum seekers who drowned off Christmas Island last night had barely taken their last breaths when such ghouls began riding their waterlogged bones, boastfully declaring the tragedy a vindication of their own contemptuous beliefs, their allergy to foreigners camouflaged behind a sick exhibition of concern for the very lives they couldn’t give two $#@&s about.

Café Whispers lashes out at the right-wing for attempting to make political gains out of a human tragedy, while offering potential solutions to prevent the disaster from recurring:

Please cast your political loyalties aside. It is evident that Labor or the Coalition cannot come up with a workable policy that will stop boat people from coming to Australia. I have no issue with people wanting to flee to our country, but I do have issues with these people being used as political tools and I certainly don’t want to see these people die in their endeavours to reach our shores. I am particularly sickened by the extreme right wing media who have tried to gain political mileage for their chosen ones out of the recent deaths on Christmas Island. In my opinion it demonstrates the the worst of the Australian character.

Café Whispers then proposes alternative solutions including processing refugees in Indonesia and imposing harsher penalties on the human traffickers.

Asylum seekers continue to evoke the rawest emotions out of Australians. It strikes at the core of Australian society, and the contended self-perceptions of Australia as an either racist or humanitarian nation. As the US critiqued via its leaked cables, asylum seekers have been politicised for domestic gains, with neither side willing to, “calmly and rationally put the issue in perspective”.


  • […] On December.15 2010 a boat carrying up to 100 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers crashed on sharp cliffs by Christmas Island in Australia. At least 30 people died. Dozens of locals witnessed the shipwreck and tried to help the drowning men, women ,and children as they struggled against the big waves. I  think it was good that there was people there to help because if there wasn’t then more people could have died. I wonder how they didn’t see the rocks because you would think the would have tried to avoid the rocks in stead of going towards them. I got my information from […]

  • […] Issa Antoun. Australia:Asylum Seeker Boat Tragedy Shocks Nation, Global Voices, December 21 2010. Australia-Asylum-Seeker-Boat-Tragedy-Shocks-Nation […]

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