August 21, 2014

Boat people from India? Who cares?

There has been very little media coverage in India on the story of the 157 asylum-seekers in Australia who left the Indian port of Pondicherry on an Indian vessel around the beginning of June that was intercepted by an Australian custom’s boat at the end of that month. Most of these refugees are Sri Lankan Tamils and had been living as illegals in India for many years. 

In Australia, used as it is now to the contentious official policy- rolled out last year- that transfers asylum seekers for ‘processing’ to, amongst others, Manus Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, human rights groups have been appalled by the treatment meted out to these boat people: Illegal detention at sea on the boat for almost a month in windowless cabins and threats made to the refugees, many of whom were separated from their families, that they would be put in three lifeboats and would have to navigate their way back to India. They were then transferred to Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll, before being brought to a detention centre in Western Australia- and then secretly flown to a detention camp in Nauru earlier this month. The youngest refugee is one year old.

The Australian government must be happy that its hard-line policies against asylum seekers’ seem to be working; this is the first boat that has made it close to the Australian mainland in seven months. The country was inundated with boat people a couple of years ago, when asylum seekers from a handful of countries, including Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, were put out to sea by smugglers from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  

Australian rights groups have once again lambasted the Australian government, saying that the treatment of these refugees makes a complete mockery of the government’s claims to care for their wellbeing and for safety at sea. It is an affront to human decency, they say, to terrify a couple of hundred refugees, many of whom did not speak English, with threats to dump them in the ocean in lifeboats. 

Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, says, “Secret detention on the high seas, trying to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean, secret overnight transfers, misleading the public, frustrating access to lawyers and to the courts – such behaviour from the government is trashing the foundations of Australia’s democracy. Respect for the rule of law, open and transparent democracy and fundamental human rights are some of the things that have made Australia the great country it is, but this government is seemingly willing to trash them all for a few cheap political points in the opinion polls.”

All that in Australia. In India, nothing. 

Nobody has denied that the vessel took on the boat people in Pondicherry. Besides a stray, casual reference to the Indian connection, no newspaper, to my knowledge, has stressed the fact that these illegals were in India for years, unable to work or live legally. Nobody addresses, as usual, the fact that in Tamilnadu, much political and public sentiment puts perceived ethnic interests above national interests. Nobody has wondered, after this first instance of a vessel leaving India carrying refugees to Australia that I know of, if this is the start of a new trend. Nobody has explained how many Indians were on board. 

And nobody- not even in one article that I have read, and I have searched for them- has pointed out that this story- of people smugglers loading human cargo in Pondicherry, a stone’s throw away from the major city and port of Chennai- is a major breach of Indian coastal security. That the measures that were supposed to be taken after the Mumbai attacks have once again found to be wanting in the extreme, as they were after Somalis started swimming ashore on to our mainland beaches in Gujarat and on to the Minicoy Islands further south. 

No government statement. No media coverage. No TV talking head expressing concern. Nothing. The seablindness is complete.

Whatever one might think of the Australian official policy, at least they don’t have their heads buried in the sand. 


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