Christmas Island evokes a tropical paradise, an antipodean getaway, where Santa can relax after the festivities have died down. It is far from that. Today, the island has become synonymous with tragedy–it is definitely not the season to be jolly, especially if you’re an asylum seeker!
Just as Australians were counting down to seasonal celebrations and enjoying the annual crass market commercialism, a harrowing incident off the coast of northern Australia took place. A boat full of asylum seekers crashed on the rocks of Christmas Island in the early morning hours of a rainy and turbulent 15 December.
Twenty-eight bodies have been recovered and it is feared that 50 still remain floating in the salty waters of the Pacific Ocean. Three emergency calls were made from the vessel before the accident but it was too late. The search for these bodies has been officially called off. According to the Australian Royal Flying Doctors Service, the dead victims and survivors are mostly Iraqis, Kurds and Iranians.
One-hundred-and-thirty boats entered Australian shores this year carrying nearly 6000 men, women and children with varying rates of survival. Regrettably, this incident is not the first and, by the way this government’s shaky political navigation is going, will not be the last. These bodies serve as acrid reminders to the Gillard government of the loss of life and a morally bankrupt immigration policy. It also puts into question the policing of national borders and how Australia’s geopolitical insecurity has always been configured with water in mind.
As an island continent, Australia is blessed with nearly 10,000 beaches. The Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans engulf this huge landmass providing optimum conditions for surfers and visiting celebrities such as Oprah, Jay Z, Kanye West, Bon Jovi and U2, all in the past week. No wonder the rate of migration for British emigrants is increasing every year. Sadly, these waters have also seen their fair share of death and violence.
Five years have passed since the Cronulla riots where the racial bubble that was somewhat managed during the conservative John Howard years burst repugnantly. Nearly 5000 white Australian youth declared a national "Leb" and "wog" bashing day to reclaim the beach in an almost militaristic fashion. The beach, just as much the maritime borders of the country, are iconic and almost sacrosanct. The response to their protection as a sanctuary against foreign bodies, internally and externally, has been steeped in patriotic passions and couched in xenophobic language.
The name SIEV X, that of another boat nine years ago, brings back traumatising memories and grief-stricken narratives to the national psyche because the same inhumane conditions hauntingly repeat themselves. The acronym is criminalising–Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X–and the 353 asylum seekers on board were condemned to the same gruesome fate as last week’s boat.
The level of arrogance of the Labor coalition government is at an all time high, to the point that Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the public broadcaster’s program 7.30 Report congratulated the navy and border patrol boats for putting themselves in harm's way on the high seas. Even though she acknowledged that asylum seekers are fleeing due to persecution, famine and in search of a better life, she maintained that the only way to deal with the political and humanitarian crisis is to increase border protection surveillance. This is where the real problem of Labor lies, because the rhetoric about human rights and asylum seekers seems progressive but the actions are truly and conservatively lacklustre.
This year saw the release of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s memoirs by his mistress and now partner Blanch D’Alpuget. A successful author in her own right, she wrote a controversial book entitled Turtle Beach in 1981. The story details the life of an Australian photojournalist who abandons her suburban Australian family life to cover the intimate details of Vietnamese refugees in Malaysian camps. The emphasis is on Malaysian people smugglers and the Malaysian government’s villainous treatment of these refugees. This is the same diatribe that Julia Gillard inhered last week when she implied that asylum seekers are genuine until they touch Australian shores, while our navy personnel are fantastic no matter what happens, and people smugglers are just pure evil.
Unfortunately, this moralising hyperbole misses the complexity of international law and national sovereignty. The answer should not be a fortification of borders–be it Cronulla or Christmas Island–but a democratic opening of these spaces in a policy of hospitality rather than hostility. Now that is a gift worth giving.
Farid Farid is a final-year doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney. His thesis examines the cultural politics of trauma and loss among Iraqi artists and writers in western Sydney.