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Are boat-people real people?

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 1 April 2010

The nightmare of the past 16 weeks since she left Iraq she will deliberately forget, but the memory of the farewell to her parents had been burnt into her brain forever. To hug a loved one while knowing that there is little chance of ever seeing that person again is a feeling beyond description.

It was October 18, 2001 and Asera was now in Lampong, Indonesia. She had paid the people smugglers the last of her parents’ life savings. Holding her hand was her eight year-old daughter "Farrah". When "Asera" looked down at the child, the trust she looked back with made Asera’s heart ache.

They were Muslims and the traditional family structure meant everything to them. Asera prayed to God every day that her husband "Hakim" will once again be able to support his family as a man must. Whatever the dangers, she and Farrah must go to him. (These are not their real names.)


On that October day, Hakim was safe - but surrounded by razor-wire

He had been here for over a year. He had learned English in Iraq and was willing to work his guts out to be an Aussie. Instead he was condemned to an emotionally empty and useless life behind razor-wire in a camp in a desert. He had never heard of the place, but now the name “Woomera” meant a lot to him.

His crime was that he “jumped the queue” to escape from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He saw his chances of getting into Australia quickly and legally as negligible. Once established in this country, he could then work to get his wife and child away from fear and deprivation and to give them a life they deserved to have. He had taken a huge gamble, but as Asera’s and Farrah’s provider, he felt that he had no other option.

Even if confined behind wire and looking out into desert, he can read newspapers and listen to radio which are not controlled by a dictatorship. He has no fear of torture. Nevertheless, he has been placed in a situation which in time will send a man mad. His behaviour was already becoming erratic and he was aware that if he were to be here another year or (God forbid!) more than that, psychological problems would make it more difficult for him to be integrated into Australian society.

Hakim is angered that so many were judging asylum seekers to be of low character. One talk-back radio program seems to be encouraging a hatred of boat-people. And, he heard one man in parliament report that three asylum seekers threatened to sink their boat when it appeared that they would be turned away by an Australian patrol boat. “Policy is not influenced by threats” sneered he.

That man did not think what it would be like, after months of endurance, and with families pinning everything on their provider’s arrival in Australia, to see the light at the end of the tunnel being blown out. The men blindly grasped at any possibility of saving the situation. They were not of low character. They were simply desperate - a state of mind that the parliamentarian should pray to God he will never be in.

Hakim wished that Australia had a more intelligent government which encouraged the best of human nature to emerge, and did not exploit for political gain the animal territorial instinct which is in all of us.


On that day of October 18, 2001, Hakim was unaware that his wife and child were boarding, with 419 other people, a dilapidated fishing boat which was 19.5 metres long and four metres wide.

Asera and Farrah are at sea on the last leg of their journey

The boat is leaking badly. Earlier that day 23 passengers had to be taken off by another boat. Asera wondered why. Was it due to a fear that the boat would sink before it got far enough out to sea to be out of Indonesia’s zone of responsibility? Asera began praying more than at any time in her life.

The passengers are packed-in so tightly that Farrah has to sit on her mother’s lap. There are not enough life jackets and none at all to fit the children. There is barely enough room to stretch. There is only fresh water for drinking - and it is insufficient for that. What they eat is only the dry food they have in their meager belongings. There is no privacy. The smell of bodies and excrement is becoming oppressive even after only one day. There is no silence at any time.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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