Death of 27 asylum seekers highlights Australia's immigration problems
Published 15/12/2010 | 15:25
At least 27 asylum seekers including women and children, have died after their boat smashed into cliffs on a remote Australian island, highlighting the nation's growing problem with illegal immigration.
With rescue efforts still under way on the remote territory of Christmas Island on Wednesday night, 41 people had been plucked from the water and one had clambered to shore. Several of the survivors had been taken to hospital and three were in a critical condition.
The incident will reignite the simmering debate in Australia over asylum seekers and border protection.
Every year thousands of asylum seekers attempt to enter the country by making the dangerous 230-mile journey from Indonesia by boat in the hope that once they arrive they will be granted refugee visas and allowed to set up home on the mainland, which is 1,650 miles away.
Most hail from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and despite efforts to stop the procession of boats by the government, the country's detention centres are at capacity after more than 100 boats delivered 5,000 asylum seekers since January, the highest number for ten years.
There are now more than 2,000 people in detention on Christmas Island, which was originally configured to house 1,900. Three large tents are being used to accommodate the overflow.
On Wednesday, a wooden boat, believed to be carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran, arrived at Christmas Island in treacherous seas.
Locals, woken at 6am by the screams from the stricken boat, rushed to the cliffs, where they were confronted by desperate scenes. The 130ft boat, which had lost power, was drifting close to the jagged rocks in the rolling surf. Women and children were clinging to the sides of the vessel and screaming.
As the islanders looked on, a huge wave smashed the boat onto the jagged rocks. The vessel disintegrated, sending its passengers and large planks of wood flying into the water.
While islanders frantically threw life jackets and ropes into the water, and some tried to clamber down the cliff to reach the victims, many of whom could not swim, navy boats attempted a rescue using two inflatable dinghies. But the dangerous conditions, brought on by a cyclone in the Indian Ocean to the north, hampered the rescue effort and scores of people, including women, children and babies drowned or were dashed against the rocks.
"There were children in the water. There was one very small child in a life jacket floating face down for a very long time... clearly dead," said Simon Prince, a local shop owner who lives on the cliff and was one of the first on the scene.
"It's something I'm not going to forget very quickly."
"We could hear the screaming," a tearful resident, Ingrid Avery, said. "Screaming, screaming and I could hear children screaming."
She said the navy boats had been delayed by the arrival of another vessel elsewhere on the island. Until the navy arrived, locals tried to help, she said.
"It was terrible to watch, there was nothing we could do, we were running around trying to send down life jackets but it was useless because the wind just blew them back in our faces."
Julia Gillard, the prime minister, said in a statement that the situation was "tragic" and the government was focusing on the rescue effort.
Earlier this year, Ms Gillard was accused of "going soft" on the issue by supporting policies that did not deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean in unsafe vessels. Her party now wants to open a processing centre on East Timor, in the hope that it will move the problem out of Australian jurisdiction. The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has vowed simply to "stop the boats" if he gains power, a slogan that won his party strong support at the recent election.
Refugee rights groups have blamed misguided government policy for the disaster.
"I do think the fact there isn't a welcome refugee policy, that the government has people smuggling laws in place which make it less likely that people on boats are willing to contact Australian authorities and to rendezvous," Ian Rintoul, head of the Refugee Action Coalition, said.
This is the third deadly incident involving boats trying to reach Christmas Island in the past decade. Last year, five Afghan refugees died when their boat exploded off Ashmore Reef, near Christmas Island, injuring 30 others. In 2001 the Siev X fishing boat sank just south of the Indonesian island of Java with 400 people onboard. A total of 353 people perished.