The tragedies of Christmas' present

Memories live long on Christmas Island.

Memories live long on Christmas Island. So when word filtered through the close-knit community on Monday that another boat was in trouble off the rocky coast of Flying Fish Cove, people acted swiftly.

Among the first to arrive was Serco regional director John Harrison, who shares responsibility for overseeing the island's three detention facilities with Department of Immigration and Citizenship regional director Joe Feld. On the jetty that day, Harrison held two babies in his arms. He still cannot believe they did not drown. The babies, he believes, were just two or three months old.

They had been on a rickety Indonesian fishing boat loaded with 96 people when it capsized soon after being boarded by two customs officers, pitching all on board into the water. Two people drowned - a 22-year-old woman, newly married and pregnant, and a four-year-old boy.

Harrison had the job of telling the boy's parents their son had not survived the family's perilous trip to Australia. "When you've got a son about the same age yourself, it's tough," he says. "It's really tough."

Everyone here remembers that fateful day in 2010, when a suspected 48 people drowned as their boat crashed repeatedly against the rocks. One man, who asked not to be named, relates how locals rushed down to the jetty with whatever they could grab on the way to throw into the water. They took plastic containers and life rafts; anything that would float. But soon a tragic mistake was realised. Some people who had grabbed ropes to throw to asylum seekers struggling in three-to-four metre swells watched in horror as those holding the ropes were thrown by the force of the waves onto sharp rocks and killed.

This week, more than 1000 asylum seekers landed on Christmas Island's jetty. The sight of the customs marine boat Ocean Protector, with its distinctive red bottom and white top, has become a familiar sight in the port. The Ocean Protector makes daily journeys, often more than daily now, to meet asylum boats identified by customs patrols as a "contact of interest" (COI), and accompanies them in to the jetty. On Thursday, it towed out a boat that had earlier brought dozens of asylum seekers to the island. As the asylum boat was set on fire and destroyed near the horizon, with the Ocean Protector waiting nearby, a navy boat was ferrying another boatload of asylum seekers in to the shore.

The arrivals meant that, once again, Christmas Island's main detention centre and its two "alternative places of detention" were housing more asylum seekers than their combined capacity of 2078, prompting a decision to organise charter flights to take excess asylum seekers to the mainland to ease the pressure.

This year, more than 3300 people have arrived by boat, compared with 1302 at the same time in 2012. The monsoon season - which slowed the boats to a crawl from November to February - is easing. Most people here expect the boats will increase in the next month or so and, at this rate, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that 30,000 or 40,000 people could arrive in Australian waters before December.

Department of Immigration and Serco officials on the island are keenly aware they could again be facing the pressures of last year, when - at one point - about 2700 asylum seekers were packed into Christmas Island's facilities and the mainland detention centres were nearly full.

If there is a predictability about the pattern of boats arriving, their human cargo unloaded, and then being towed back out to sea and destroyed, the same can be said about the political debate on the mainland. The impasse continues, the blame game ebbs and flows, and a solution seems further away than the horizon.

Since August 13, when the Gillard government announced that it had accepted all of the recommendations of the Houston expert panel on refugees, more than 12,500 people have arrived over the oceans. Christmas Island's port is again a hive of activity.

In an effort to ease the pressure on mainland detention facilities, the federal government is reportedly considering extending its new class of bridging visas to allow families to be released into the community while their claim for protection is being considered, but denying them work rights.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week repeated her calls for the opposition and the Greens to support the government's preferred so-called Malaysia solution, which would involve 800 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat being "swapped" for 4000 people who have been proven to be refugees from Malaysia. It barely needs to be said that this week's arrivals alone would account for the entire Malaysian 'solution'.

But Gillard was unbowed, accusing the opposition of playing "negative politics" and suggesting the Coalition wanted more boats to arrive so they could score political points. "If we could implement the Malaysia agreement we would do it very rapidly. We have been prevented from doing that by the negative approach taken by the opposition," she said.

The Malaysia deal was given qualified support by the expert panel (headed by former defence chief Angus Houston). The panel proposed a range of incentives and detergents to discourage people from risking their lives on boats. In particular, it said protections for those to be sent to Malaysia would need to be strengthened. This has not been done and the Coalition and Greens continue to oppose asylum seekers being sent to Malaysia.

This week, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young called for the government to release a progress report into the implementation of the expert panel's recommendations, and called for both sides of politics to stop "the blame game".

"The new laws that stripped rights and protections from refugees were rushed through the Parliament with the blessing of both the Labor and Liberal parties, and yet no one is now safer and the boats keep coming," she said.

But, like the other parties in this debate, the Greens stand accused of being unwilling to bend.

As authorities off Christmas Island watched the horizon for more boats, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott again repeated his claim that a Coalition government would, after the September 14 election, "stop the boats". But the opposition has provided voters with scant details about how it proposes to do this. In joint statements issued with opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison and customs and border protection spokesman Michael Keenan, Mr Abbott says he will "stop the boats" with "rigorous" offshore processing, by advising the navy to turn back boats where safe, and by reintroducing temporary protection visas.

Mr Abbott's office did not respond to questions about the mechanics of the policy, including how the navy would determine which boats are safe, or whether they're safe to turn back, what "rigorous" offshore processing entailed, how quickly the boats would stop coming under an Abbott government and whether he would resign if he could not deliver on his vow to stop them.

Morrison also would not elaborate on how the navy would turn boats around, when he was interviewed by the ABC this week, saying he would not go into details for "operational reasons".

No one doubts the dangers people face when they make the 200-nautical mile journey from Java to the Australian territories. Watching children and the elderly unsteadily climb from rickety and rusting Indonesian fishing boats onto the safety of an Australian navy barge is sobering. These days, Serco's Harrison says, about 30 per cent of boat arrivals are families, many with small children. At one point under the former Howard government, he says, families comprised as many as 50 per cent of boat arrivals, but the figure had dropped in recent times. It is troubling to see it rise again, he says. On Wednesday, refugee advocate Paris Aristotle, one of the three members of the expert panel, warned there could be many more tragedies unless the Parliament unites behind the panel's strategy. Aristotle appealed to the opposition and the Greens to reconsider the plan, including the Malaysia people-swap agreement, and said people smugglers were capitalising on the political impasse in Australia.

He urged all sides to come together and reassess the "template" devised by the panel, which has been only partially implemented. The panel warned that unless its recommendations were implemented as a package, they would not work.

"The layers of complexity in this area are so great that there is no single answer to this," Aristotle said. "It has to be a comprehensive and integrated approach ... If we don't address this in an integrated and comprehensive way these sorts of tragedies are going to continue."

David Manne, the lawyer who led the successful court challenge to the Malaysian agreement, agrees that a regional solution is the only way forward, but insists it's time for a new approach, one that has the human dignity of those seeking protection at its core, one that doesn't seek to deter those who might come and doesn't punish those who do.

"Asylum policy is in a state of crisis and collapse, and urgently needs a new template," he said. "For too long it has been reduced to a simplistic search for a silver bullet and a toxic mix of political jousting over who has the tougher policy toward a relatively small number of people fleeing persecution."

Back on Christmas Island, senior Serco and Department of Immigration staff say they are not interested in political or policy debates. They are too busy trying to do their jobs, and do them well. Sometimes, like on Monday, that job involves pulling babies from the waters off Christmas Island, and having to tell shell-shocked parents that their little four-year-old boy didn't survive the journey to Australia.

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