Wednesday, January 25, 2012


David Marr, SMH.

People will die. They died the last time the navy forced boats back to Indonesia and they will die the next. They have always died.

That's why the navy hates these operations and that loathing is deep in the DNA of the service. It goes back to the violent blockade carried out by the Royal Navy before and after the Second World War to prevent Jews reaching Palestine. Jews were trapped in Europe. Jews and sailors died at sea. The film is called Exodus.

After Tampa, Canberra ordered the navy to force back every boat to Indonesia. The admirals resisted. They told John Howard's people most of the boats were so unseaworthy they could barely make the outward journey let alone limp home again.

Advertisement: Story continues below They reminded these civilian bureaucrats of the long history of desperate people compelling rescue by sabotaging their boats. They tried to explain the moral and legal obligation of every sailor to rescue those in peril on the sea - even in wartime. Howard was adamant: push back every boat you can, with rescue only as the last resort.

Boats were boarded by Australian sailors in violent altercations. Shots were fired across bows. Engines were sabotaged by asylum seekers. Hulls holed. Boats set on fire.

The fourth boat post Tampa slowly sank in front of HMAS Adelaide with Canberra ordering no rescue of the 223 men women and children on board unless and until they were in danger of drowning. Australian sailors eventually carried out a heroic, successful and entirely unnecessary rescue from the sea.

"If the Manly ferry was sinking out in Sydney Harbour, none of those people would have gotten wet," Bec Lynd, an able seaman on the Adelaide that day, told ABC TV's Q&A last year. "We would have been there in a flash."

That rescue changed her mind about the boats. She thought the navy was out there stopping terrorists but found herself giving first aid to women and their children. "We sort of felt like we were used as a bit of a political tool," she said. "To be put in harm's way and to put other people in harm's way when it isn't necessarily - it's not a nice position to be put in."

The death count began with the seventh boat. At least three on board died when it was successfully forced back to Roti Island off the coast of Bali. Survivors told Four Corners they were beaten with batons and sprayed in the eyes by Australian military personnel.

The 10th boat caught erupted in flames, endangering an Australian boarding party and leading to another heroic mass rescue in which two Afghan women drowned, several children survived by a miracle and Australian personnel were deeply traumatised.

By Christmas 2001, four boats carrying more than 600 people had been forced to return to Indonesia. Then the boats stopped. The strategy had proved highly effective. When a few boats reappeared in 2008, the navy kept going through the routine of asking them to sail away. They never did and weren't forced to.

But in April 2009 desperately foolish men on a boat stopped at Ashmore Reef took the sailors seriously and blew up the vessel, killing five Afghans and hideously burning dozens of others.

Asylum seekers shouldn't do this but they do. It's a fact of history. Desperate people take terrible risks. Tony Abbott knows that when he says he will turn every possible boat back to Indonesia. It certainly works. But do we think it's worth it?