A year ago on Christmas Island
This time last year, almost to the day, I was standing on the jetty at Christmas Island’s Flying Fish Cove.
It was dawn, on a perfectly still morning, and the sea was flat. Moored just inside the harbour was the infamous Australian Customs boat, the Oceanic Viking, waiting to disembark a number of asylum seekers from a vessel they had intercepted.
The images and footage of this week’s tragedy on Christmas Island showed a scene that could not have been more different from that calm morning in December last year.
My colleagues and I were on Christmas Island to meet with authorities, inspect detention facilities, and to speak to some of the thousands of asylum seekers being held there.
The previous day we had confirmed media reports that the Department of Immigration were preparing for the arrival of a number of asylum seekers.
When we reached the jetty at first light, it was a hive of activity. Staff from the Department of Immigration, security company Serco, customs, AFP, local police, quarantine and interpreters were calmly going about their business. It was clear from their efficient, professional and methodical manner that this was a job they had done before.
Minibuses were backed down the pier as stevedores lowered two barges into the water.
The barges navigated their way out the narrow reef channel and returned, soon after, carrying groups of asylum seekers wearing bright orange life vests. It was an orderly process, and for these people represented the last stage of a long and dangerous journey in search of safety.
As the groups came ashore, I became increasingly aware of the enormity of the moment for these men, women and children as they took their first steps on dry land.
Some seemed overwhelmed, others lost. Sheer relief was evident in many of their tired and sunburned faces. One man, who could not contain his happiness, was smiling and approaching staff to shake their hands and thank them for their kindness.
Most had arrived in Australia with nothing more than a small sports bag big enough for a few items of clothing.
These people, mostly from the war-ravaged countries of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, had packed their entire lives into these tiny bags.
That morning was a poignant reminder to me of the absolute vulnerability of a person who packs their whole life into a small sports bag, takes the hands of their wife and children, and gets on a boat in search of safety and security. Nobody wants to be a refugee, and the decision to get on a boat is not one that any person would take lightly.
While the people I saw made it successfully and safely to Australia and were able to begin their claim for protection, many of those on the boat that attempted to reach Christmas Island on Tuesday were not so lucky. Just metres from safety, some of them paid the ultimate price.
The debate about asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat is often heated and politically charged.
Because of that, there is a tendency to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about a fundamentally human issue. Asylum seekers are people. They are men, women and children who come to Australia asking for our protection and our help.
In the vast majority of cases, those who come by boat are found to be genuine refugees who can prove they are fleeing persecution. Many are fleeing violence, and in some cases they’ve lived through torture.
Over the past couple of days we’ve seen a rare display of political consensus, with politicians of all persuasions putting aside their own political objectives and remaining focused on the human element of this tragedy. Now is not a time for speculation or apportioning blame.
As Australia mourns the lives that have been lost, we also need to remember that people are at the heart of our national conversation about asylum seekers. They are men, women and children who have risked everything in their search for safety.
Earlier this year, one of my colleagues appeared on Sunrise to speak about asylum seekers.
He was joined on the couch by the popular Australian comedian Anh Do, whose family came to Australia as refugees after fleeing Vietnam by boat. At the end of the segment, Ahn said: “When a guy throws his family and a couple of young kids on a boat, and he rocks up, and he says ‘help me’, there’s no reason to fear him and his little family.”
That just about sums it up.
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