Australia: Tragedy proves that refugees are human too

16 December 2010|Fr Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy SJ

A boat laden with refugees is driven onto rocks at Christmas Island in this still image taken from video 15 December 2010. Twenty-seven asylum seekers have died and dozens may be missing after heavy waves smashed their timber boat onto rocks on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean off Australia, sinking the boat and throwing people into stormy seas. (Network 7 via Reuters TV, Reuters)

Sydney, 16 December 2010 – JRS Australia Director, Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, says the Christmas Island tragedy in which at least 28 asylum seekers were killed yesterday should drive home the fact that refugees are human beings rather than inconvenient statistics, and that they risk their lives constantly in search of a safe future.

We’ve known all along that some boats don’t make it, that people die along the way. But even though we know this intellectually, we can’t empathise with a tragedy of which we are not aware. The difference with this event is that we could actually see the boat, we watched as it was dashed against the rocks and we heard people pleading for help, said Fr Bermudez-Goldman.

He said that the tragedy also reinforced the fact that people would rather risk death aboard a boat than face persecution in their home countries. Jesuit Refugee Service is now offering assistance to the asylum seekers on Christmas Island, some of whom believe they may have had relatives aboard the stricken vessel.

Our representative on the island, Sister of Mercy Joan Kelleher, says it looks as if some of the surviving children might have lost one or both parents in the tragedy. She spent yesterday afternoon and evening at Phosphate Hill Camp, one of the detention facilities where families stay, where she sat with people, just trying to be present and to console them. There are very distraught people among the asylum seekers already on the island. They are mourning the death of these people.

Sr Joan said that counselling would also be offered to some of the locals who witnessed the wreckage and tried to assist but were unable to help.

This will affect everyone on Christmas Island, not only asylum seekers, said Fr Bermudez-Goldman.

The next Catholic priest scheduled to arrive on Christmas Island to provide pastoral services was due to arrive on the Island today, where he had planned to hold several special Christmas celebrations with the asylum seekers. While these will still go ahead, Fr Bermudez-Goldman said that the immediate focus would be very much on the loss of life, and the trauma with which the islanders now have to grapple.

This is what we do: JRS offers a pastoral presence for everyone, regardless of their religion. And I am sure they will need it now more than ever.’

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