Deadly Boat Disaster Rattles Australia's Conscience

The deaths of 30 asylum seekers in a capsized boat off Australia highlights the political complications of asylum, as exposed by recent WikiLeaks cables. Raymond Bonner reports from Sydney.

12.16.10 10:41 AM ET

At least 30 people were killed when a wooden boat carrying asylum seekers crashed in stormy seas on the rocks off Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

Four babies, four children, and nine women were among the bodies recovered.

Island residents watched helplessly, their rescue efforts thwarted by cyclone-force winds, as refugees, seeking to escape the cruelty of Iraq and Iran, drowned.

"I saw a person dying in front of me and there was nothing we could do to save them," Kamar Ismail told the Australia AFP. "Babies, children, maybe 3 or 4 years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming, 'help, help, help.' We were throwing life jackets out to them, but many of them couldn't swim a few meters to reach them."

There are only 22 million people in Australia—an area about the size of the contiguous 48 States of the United States.

The asylum issue is one of the most politically heated here, and even as the Australian Navy was searching for survivors, there were calls for a federal investigation, and questions were being raised about whether Australian border and customs patrols had been monitoring the refugee boat and purposefully allowed it to motor into the treacherous waters so close to the cliffs. (The government was quick to deny this allegation).

"Highly emotive," and "politically dangerous," is how the American embassy described the asylum issue in a classified cable, which is among the WikiLeaks trove. The cable was provided to The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, which reported it on its website a few hours after the first reports of the tragedy off Christmas Island.

The Labor Party "is fearful of being viewed 'soft' on border security," the embassy reported. It is a charge that the country's center-right Liberal Party has repeatedly hurled to its political advantage.

Indeed, a Liberal party strategist told the embassy that the asylum issue was "fantastic" for his party, the Age reported. "The more boats that come the better."

Asylum seekers undergo perilous journeys to reach here. Their families often sell off just about all their property to pay smugglers. The usual route is by truck from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan to Malaysia, where false documents are obtained.

A flight to Indonesia follows. There, the refugees wait to board rickety boats, which are unsafe in any water.

The issue erupted in the midst of an election in 2001. A smuggler's boat loaded with asylum seeker was intercepted by the Australian Navy as it headed to Christmas Island. The boat was leaking and eventually sank. Government officials, including Prime Minister John Howard, said that parents had thrown their children overboard.

The charges were intended to generate fear, and stir up anti-immigrant sentiments. Labor was caught flat-footed, and didn't want to be seen defending asylum seekers. Later it turned out that the government officials had dissembled—no children had been thrown overboard—but by then the Liberals were safely back in power.

In an effort to discourage asylum seekers, the Howard government stepped up naval patrols, shipped some refugees who were caught to the desolate island of Naura, and put others in harsh detention camps in Australia. Families were often separated. Howard's critics referred to the camps as Australia's "Guantanamo."

The "Children Overboard" incident of 2001 haunted the Labor Party going into the election of 2007. Labor candidate Kevin Rudd promised better treatment of refugees. Labor won, but Rudd "was not mentioning this, or lauding his government's more humane approach to asylum seekers," the embassy noted last November. (Rudd was ousted by his party earlier this year, and Julia Gilliard is the current prime minister).

Immigration has been a political issue in Australian politics almost since the country's independence. A "white only" policy was only officially repealed in the early 1970s.

It is often hard for outsiders to understand Australia's fear of immigration. There are only 22 million people in an area about the size of the contiguous 48 States of the United States.

American embassy officials have also seemed perplexed. Only some 1,000 people sought asylum in 2009. "A drop in the ocean," the embassy reported in the November cable. But that doesn't make the issue any less political.

Partisan politics surfaced quickly today. One member of parliament said that the rumors of government complicity had to be addressed.

"This is a despicable early start to a despicable political campaign to come," the political editor of The Australian, Dennis Shanahan, wrote.

Raymond Bonner has been an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and has written for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He now lives in Britain.