By Andrew Martin of Socialist Alternative. Originally published at

Australia’s callous refugee policies have led to the death of more asylum seekers at sea. It is estimated at least 55 refugees were aboard a boat that capsized off the coast of Christmas Island on 7 June. Within hours after the capsized hull of the boat was sighted by a surveillance aircraft, 13 bodies were seen floating in the water. Due to the location of the vessel, the search and rescue was the full responsibility of Australia’s Border Protection Command (BPC).

No survivors were found, and not a single body was recovered. The pain of this tragic loss of life was compounded by the cold-hearted response of the Australian government. Home affairs minister Jason Clare admitted that the vessel had been spotted two days earlier and that it was “stationary”, but supposedly “not in distress” – quite a contradiction for a voyage that has claimed the lives of countless refugees.

The very fact that the boat was stationary should have been cause for alarm and a full-scale rescue attempt. Also contradicting the claim that the vessel was not in distress was the message issued by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). According to Marg Hutton, independent SEIV-X researcher, what Clare didn’t reveal was that AMSA issued a call to all shipping on Thursday night that the vessel was “in a state of urgency” and was “reported overdue on a voyage from Indonesia to Christmas Island”.


But BPC did not issue a notice to all shipping that there was a vessel that had safety problems for 40 hours after the first sighting. The call it issued was not even a full May Day alert. By then it was too late.

BPC knew about the vessel. It knew it wasn’t seaworthy. It also knew that the vessel was drifting away from Christmas Island with the westerly movement of the ocean current. This was convenient for the government because, the more the vessel drifted away, the more it relieved Australia of international maritime obligations to rescue it. If the boat drifted back into Indonesian waters, the government could wash its hands of it.

To underline how inhumane the ALP government has become towards refugees, it refused to recover any of the bodies, leaving them to decompose in the ocean. Julia Gillard obdurately cited “operational reasons” for this decision. The search for survivors was called off three days later. This leaves the families of the people on board with no closure for the loss of life and no chance for burial according to their customs.

The Coalition’s response has also been predictably heartless. It said that in government it will tow all boats back to Indonesia even against the wishes of the Indonesian government, a policy that has directly led to deaths in the past.

Unnecessary deaths

It is estimated that around 1800 asylum seekers have lost their lives at sea since 2000. The real number will never be known. There have been many losses of life at sea that haven’t been recorded. Last month 28 life jackets were washed up onto the beaches of the Cocos Keeling Islands with no reports of survivors. The residents of the islands say that debris from boats lost at sea often washes up onto the beaches.

All of the victims of these tragedies could have been saved. Australia certainly has the capacity to rescue refugees. It has shown in the past an unreserved willingness to rescue wealthy adventurers whose yachts have struck disaster.

In 2008, the French skipper Yann Elies was rescued from the deep Southern Ocean near the Antarctic after breaking his leg when a wave crashed over his racing yacht. No expense was spared when the Navy frigate HMAS Arunta, with its own helicopter, full medical crew and doctor from the RFDS, arrived to pluck Elies from the ocean. The organiser of the race, Denis Horeau, commented at the time: “… the Australians are capable of exceptional work, they are rescue experts …”

Apart from Australia’s capacity to rescue people distressed at sea, there are other reasons that these deaths are needless. The punitive policy of detention and fortress Australia mentality are the single biggest contributing factors.

Australia is one of the only countries in the world to have a system of mandatory detention, but it hasn’t always been this way. Several thousand refugees came to Australia at the end of the war in Vietnam. The government of the time decided on a program of resettlement, thereby alleviating any risk of drownings at sea. Between 1975 and 1994, more tan 112,000 refugees were accepted for resettlement from Vietnam.

The money spent on locking up refugees in detention centres could easily be reallocated to a program of resettlement. That is a far more humane alternative to policies that have led to the deaths of so many in need of our care and assistance.

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