Arms of safety reach out to a shipload of misery
3 February 2000
CANBERRA: At first, Michael Asims watched the drama from his office in the Christmas Island casino: hundreds of refugees clamoring to get off a boat anchored offshore.
Then his conscience took over. 'In moments like this you feel so much compassion, you just have to run to help,' he said.
The first dinghy he met was carrying six women, several holding young babies. 'One of them just looked at me. She was desperate, and she was carrying this young baby. When I took the baby from her arms, the relief was so great.
'The baby just froze in my arms. No crying, almost not breathing and all the women were looking at me. I just turned around and waded into shore.
'When the mother got to the shore she couldn't take him for a minute, she was so relieved.
Mr Asims, 41, the island's casino resort manager, was still feeling the emotion yesterday after his dramatic intervention in the landing of the latest boatload of illegal arrivals in Australia.
The tinpot vessel, carrying 282 Iraqi and Iranian refugees, had been at sea for 36 hours without water after a rough passage from Indonesia.
Fighting heavy seas of the monsoon season, the crew had been unable to dock at the central marina on the west side of Christmas island.
They headed for the east side, to the more peaceful Waterfall Bay Lagoon in front of the casino resort.
A six-man Australian Federal Police contingent on the island hurried to greet them. But even on the east side the weather was too rough for the boat to dock.
A barge was sent to unload passengers, bringing them into the bay where they were unloaded on to two police dinghys and a civilian craft and then taken into shore.
Mr Asims said he spent five hours wading in the bay, carefully unloading the refugees. 'These were not your garden variety of refugees. Well dressed, many of the men in suits, they were very very well groomed,' he told The Age.
'Many of the children spoke very good English and from what I could gather most of the people were from Baghdad.
'Half in jest, half serious, they joked about Saddam Hussein. How bad he was, and how glad they were to get away from there and land in Australia.
Mr Asims said the refugees seemed to know 'the drill' about what happened to refugees once they arrived in Australia.
'Some of them asked when the plane would come to pick them up and take them to Australia, and they seemed to know they would be detained, that they would be free to do what they liked,' Mr Asims said.
By 5.30pm on Tuesday, the refugees - including 204 men, 36 women, six infants and two crew - had been unloaded from the boat and taken to a temporary detention centre.
The Minister for Immigration, Mr Philip Ruddock, said the refugees would be transferred to the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia as soon as charter flights could be arranged.
The boatload was one of the largest groups to land on the island yet, and must be met with more than short term measures, said Mr Phil Oakley, president of the Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce.
'What we have now is a very stop-gap measure for what everyone here believes is going to be a long-term problem, perhaps indefinite,' he said.
'The Government already has plans to build a sports centre here, so we now want them to re-design and fast-track that with toilets and showers, and even a commercial kitchen, so we can cope with these groups.'
Only two-thirds could be accommodated in the corrugated shed usually used to shelter the suspected illegal immigrants, Mr Oakley said.
'So another 100 people need to be located elsewhere, which splits police and available resources to deal with them,' Mr Oakley said.
Mr Ruddock rejected the call. Fresh from Jakarta with news of a diplomatic breakthrough allowing the signing of an agreement aimed at stemming the flow of boatpeople, Mr Ruddock insisted the recent measures to stem the tide of immigrants were working.
'The measures that we have enacted are having an impact,' he told reporters in Darwin.
'I don't want to be the minister who builds a potential facility at Christmas Island with no boat arrivals.'