A leaky boat to heartbreak
By Keith Saunders
The Australian
28 August 2001

On patrol in the northwest ocean, Keith Saunders meets a boatload of desperate would-be migrants

What makes a caring father sell all he has to place his young family in a small leaking boat to cross a dangerous sea to land in a country he knows nothing about?

SUNRISE at the Ashmore islands. HMAS Bunbury is at anchor, waiting to transfer fuel to the Australian Customs vessel Wauri, when a dot appears on the northern horizon, trailing a wisp of smoke.

The dot is identified as it looms larger and given a generic name -- SIEV, or suspected illegal entry vessel. Its apprehensive occupants are also given a label. They become suspected unlawful non-citizens, or SUNCs.

The SUNCs' first view of the land they hope to make their home is a desolate sand cay with two palm trees and a surrounding reef. The first Australians they encounter are the uniformed officers boarding their boat.

Once proud and loyal citizens of another country, the SUNCs have taken many risks to get here. They have detached themselves from all they believed in to make their dream a reality. At home they avoided being seen to be afraid, sold everything and said goodbye forever to friends and family. They risked physical retribution and death.

The uniforms' first task is to explain to the SUNCs and four Indonesian crewmen that they are in Australian waters but still have an opportunity to turn around and go back without fear of prosecution. For the crew this would mean, at best, ridicule; at worst, a beating. For the SUNCs it means, at best, long-term imprisonment; at worst, death. In an hour the uniforms will return for a decision. No one doubts what the decision will be.

The processing is the hardest part for the government personnel. It is always the same. Like bank tellers, they bear the brunt of innocent ignorance from clients. However, this boat is different. It isn't that there are more than 170 people on a craft built for 20 or that it is leaking, taking in more than 100 litres an hour. No, it is the children. There are just so many.

Sitting almost on top of each other, personal space stopped being a concept days ago. They have been at sea for several days, living like cattle in a truck journeying to market. It is a self-imposed test of human endurance that continues as the SUNCs are processed.

Halim says she is nine months pregnant and has not eaten for four days. Her husband is concerned and, not surprisingly, vocal in requesting, then demanding, assistance. His anguish is tempered by fear and magnified by love. His wife is constantly crying. They have not yet arrived at paradise and have been told it will be at least three days before they can travel to Australia. It is all he can bear. The uniforms are continuously besieged by the people. It is difficult. The children are scared, hot and ill. Why aren't they being processed so they can begin their new life in paradise, they ask. This is not how the people smugglers in Indonesia explain what will happen on their arrival.

They are assured by their travel agents, dealers in human misery, that the Australian Government will take them to safety on arriving at Ashmore. To the uniforms, the SUNCs' expectations shed light on how organisers of these voyages are able to exploit them, easily and lucratively. The people are told Australia is willing to take them, and that employment, homes and a better life for their children are theirs for only two days' sailing.

Under conditions of fear, abuse and mistrust such hopes translate into exciting and seemingly simple solutions. For the arrivals, the higher the expectation, the greater the disappointment when reality hits them.

Abdul, 25, asks: 'Why cannot we simply go to the camp in Melbourne this evening?'

He is shocked to find Australia is 600km from Ashmore and Melbourne is another 3000km. Many of the people expect to see city skylines from Ashmore. Instead they are told that a ship is being sent to pick them up and take them to Darwin, but will take more than three days to arrive.

'Melbourne is a very beautiful place, no?' Abdul searches for colour in all of the grey. 'Yes,' the uniform says, 'Melbourne is a very beautiful place. But you must be patient. You have done so much to get here. A little more should not be too difficult.'

Abdul senses a link with the uniform. 'I am a John the Baptist,' he says. 'Iraq is not safe for John the Baptist. Is Australia good for John the Baptist?' For the uniform it is a flag, an indication of why people do what they do to get here. 'In Australia, you can support whoever you believe in, so long as you don't hurt anyone.' Abdul glows, more colour in all of the grey.

The women plead to the uniforms in a way that tears at the heart. With hands outstretched, tears in their eyes and crying children at their breasts, they plead, 'You must help us. Are we to die here?'

Help is on the way. The uniforms try to explain, but the message is not getting through. Fear calls the shots in the minds of the people. Their situation seems hopeless. Here they are, finally in paradise, yet they are told they must stay on board a leaking boat. With the most fearful stage of their journey behind them, they become impatient.

Anya, 4, has twinkling brown eyes and a ruffian's curly hair. She giggles as she tickles her father's ear, oblivious to her surroundings. Her father says she needs a blood transfusion every 40 days. Her last transfusion was in a Jakarta hospital 36 days ago. Shamil is in her early 20s and 47 days into her first pregnancy. She is dehydrated and constantly sick. She explains her symptoms to the navy medic. He consoles her and tries to explain that help truly is on the way -- that the uniforms are doing all that they can, as fast as they can. The medic moves to the next patient. He is concerned that full-term pregnancy may be a risk for Shamil.

The faces reflect the emotions. Mothers clasp their crying children, fathers try to stand strong and secure, as is their culture. Inside they ask themselves, 'Have the risks, the pain and the fear been worth it?' Their eyes and the desperate questions to the uniforms reflect their concerns. If this is paradise, where is the joy? Where is the hope?

After communications between Ashmore and Canberra it is confirmed the Samson Explorer, a steel vessel capable of carrying everyone, will be sent to pick up the SUNCs. The vessel has a top speed of about 8 nautical miles an hour. It seems it will take about 20 hours to ready the vessel for departure from Darwin.

Authorities have identified the special needs of Halim, Anya and the others. A Super Puma helicopter is sent from the mainland. At 7.30am on their second day at Ashmore the sick are on their way to Darwin in a blue and white 700-horsepower flying angel.

Halim will find she is less than nine months pregnant but is carrying twins. Doctors cannot ascertain the blood condition Anya is said to have, despite extensive tests.

Duty of care by the uniforms does not allow chances to be taken; they must act responsibly when informed of alleged medical conditions. It is a loophole that can't be closed without risk to genuine patients, despite the possibility some illnesses are feigned.

For the remaining 165 or so, the days are hotter and the nights longer. For the children, what began as an adventure is becoming a traumatic event. They have been on a leaky boat for a week. Attention spans depleted, they have no room to walk, let alone play.

Mother cries all the time and father, he seems strange. He doesn't smile anymore. He sits looking into the distance. As each day passes, he gets angrier. The uniforms have been friendly and helpful. But they only come past the boat in their own little ships a few times a day now. Most of the children just lie about, sunburned. Babies have rashes from the heat.

The Bunbury is still standing by to assist the Wauri. The Customs vessel Arnhem Bay and the Samson Explorer are on their way. The people will be taken to Darwin and interviewed. Their next move will be to a detention centre.

The reaction of Australians to the boat people ranges from concern through tolerance to annoyance. Whatever the emotion, the facts remain the same. In our peaceful land it is sometimes hard to understand the refugee situation.

What makes a caring father sell all he has to place his young family and the love of his life in a small leaking boat to cross a dangerous sea to land in a country he knows nothing about? He gives up all he knows and believes. He does this on the strength of a promise from a merchant in human misery -- the people smuggler. There must be a reason.

Keith Saunders is a fisheries officer with the West Australian Department of Fisheries, international operations section, based in Broome

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