That sinking feeling as another leaky old boat heaves to
20 August 2001
Sydney Morning Herald
A better system is needed to cope with the hundreds of visa-less foreigners trying to sneak in via Australia's back door.
At about half past five last Thursday morning, Christmas Island time, a businessman, Phillip Oakley, and a mate pushed their boat away from the island's wharf and headed out to sea. They'd heard another boatload of people was coming in from Indonesia and they wanted to find them.
On air with me last Friday, Oakley described the scene. The dark, silent outline of a fishing boat, lit with a single lamp and listing badly, loomed out of the murky predawn. Suddenly, the boat erupted with deafening noise.
Three hundred and fifty people, packed in like sardines, blew whistles and yelled at the top of their lungs.
They were all in a pretty distressed state, Oakley said. Perhaps another half hour or so and the leaky boat would have sunk without trace. There was no real danger of them not finding Christmas Island, however. The boat, he said, was fitted with sophisticated global positioning equipment. [emphasis added]
Oakley and the good citizens of Christmas Island are matter of fact when it comes to boat people. They take them in, feed and shelter them, and wait for the Australian Federal Police and immigration authorities to come and transport them to the mainland. It's good for the economy, Oakley said, especially for those locals in the food business, because the Government foots the not-inconsiderable bill.
But this time it was different. Oakley said he'd never seen such a packed boat, most people were standing and he doubted anyone could have slept. And never had he seen so many children, most of them accompanied only by women. [emphasis added]
Christmas Island received supplies from the mainland twice a week and, with this arrival, things were stretched. The AFP's people-smuggling team was soon due to arrive to sort and assess the arrivals.
Not long after I got off air, I took a call from a farmer. Graham lived in John Anderson's electorate, 'on the wrong side of Dubbo', and he'd heard my conversation with Oakley. He was crackling with anger. The gist of his argument was not unfamiliar. He could not for the life of him understand why we had to take in these people, why the authorities could not prevent the criminal trade of people smuggling. He couldn't understand why these people spent years at the taxpayer's expense trying to stay then, when they failed under our laws, kicked up a huge fuss. Some even escaped into the community.
I let Graham have a good blow. He had a broad bushie's accent and, despite his anger, he was articulate and compassionate. He felt for the children, he said. But bloody hell, can't something be done? 'Bloody hell, Graham,' I said. 'I wish I knew.'
It had been a strange morning. Earlier, while I was interviewing the AFP chief, Commissioner Mick Keelty, about the people-smuggling trade, my producer took a call from Deb Whitmont, the reporter responsible for last Monday's controversial and highly emotive Four Corners program on life inside the Villawood detention centre. Whitmont said I should not have used the term 'illegal immigrants' in relation to the latest arrivals. They were asylum seekers, she instructed. We checked with the AFP and the term they use is 'suspected illegal immigrants'.
So many agendas, so many heated emotions, so little clarity. The issue of these people, whether you call them suspected illegal immigrants or asylum seekers, inflames the Left and the Right like no other, with the exception perhaps of public versus private schools.
The problem, in my view, lies fairly and squarely with our slow-moving justice system. There's no doubt we must be vigilant in the checking procedures and Bob Carr has insisted, rightly, we must be even more careful in future. We've made some awful mistakes with migration policy, letting criminals from Nazi Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia and people with dubious backgrounds enter this country without question.
But our process of assessing whether people are genuine refugee which Philip Ruddock describes as one of the most thorough in the world and is, I believe, fair at law is too long.
There's progress at the supply end AFP teams are working in many countries to stem the people-smuggling trade and we have to expedite the legal process at this end. We need to sift out the wrong people fast, send them home and get the genuine people of good character started faster in their new lives in this country.