Refugees – boats, seas, deserts & deaths

Monday, 26 August 2013

I’ve been bumping into the refugee question repeatedly in the past couple of weeks – and I know I’m going to collide with it lots more times in the weeks to come. Australia has a general election on 7 September – that’s less than two weeks away – and both sides (Kevin Rudd and Australian Labor on one side, Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Party on the other) are competing for how tough they can be on refugees. ‘Stopping the boats,’ is the big issue, but essentially that seems to mean who can come up with the dumbest plan for how to handle the refugee flow. Rudd says he’ll ship all refugees off to Papua New Guinea so Abbott suggests buying up the Indonesian boats which bring them in.

Darwin Vietnam boat 542
▲ A Vietnamese refugee boat in the Darwin Martime Museum.

Last week, as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival I did a MOTH talk (The Moth is a New York based story telling operation) and I talked about how – 40 years ago – I was a boat person. I arrived by boat from Indonesia, landing on the beach at Exmouth on Western Australia’s North-West Cape.

Then I’ve reviewed Marcello Di Cintio’s excellent book Walls, many of which are designed to keep refugees at bay. Finally last night – at the Melbourne Writers Festival again – I heard Jeremy Harding of the London Review of Books deliver the Alan Missen Oration on ‘Border Vigils – How Far Can Governments Patrol Migration.’ Some facts and figures:

In the last five years around 50,000 refugees have arrived in Australia by boat, the number has dramatically increased in recent years. When boat people first started turning up in Australia they were Vietnamese refugees, arriving through the 1990s. A 10 year interlude followed before today’s refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka started turning up. They head for Christmas Island, an Australian dot in the ocean south of the Indonesian island of Java.

A lot of them die on the way, probably around 1000 in the last five years have drowned when their unseaworthy vessels got into trouble. Stopping the refugees arriving by boat (a Sydney Morning Herald article) would also stop the drowning deaths.

But look at two international comparison figures against Australia. In a similar five year period Italy has had three times as many refugees arriving, 150,000 against Australia’s 50,000. They head across the Mediterranean from Libya, aiming to make it to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, half way between the African coast and Malta. Lots of them drown as well.

Meanwhile in the USA migrants from Mexico – they’re not refugees, they’re simply heading to the USA looking for work, die in the Sonora Desert. The extension and fortification of the US border wall has forced migrants to cross in increasingly inhospitable regions. Australia’s 1000 refugees at sea is probably only half the 2000 desert deaths in the USA in a similar five year period. Read this story in The Guardian on the dangers of crossing into that Arizona desert.