Against forgetting

This is how news travel before and after these tragedies: across great distances, often in translation and wrapped in uncertainty as to the date of the voyage, whether the loved one was actually on the boat, and most importantly what happened to them.
– Giovanni Tiso, ‘No-one knows where you are

The responsibility for tracking down a family of five who got on a boat in July and hasn’t been heard from since has, to my surprise, fallen to me. This is because I live with someone who is Tamil and know somebody who works with refugees. Those who might have more information, who may be familiar with the missing, are, typically in a position too perilous to make inquiries that place them in government spotlights. More generally, most of us don’t where to start looking for a boat lost on a vast ocean.

I certainly don’t but I feel this family’s relying on me. All I have to go on is a scrap of paper listing the translated names and birth dates of a mother, father and three children. I am not confident even about the names – the family converted to Christianity after they fled Sri Lanka and before they left India on a boat, believing Australia would be more welcoming to Christian refugees. The names they have now may be less recognisably Tamil.

What was the plan when they left India – a boat to Indonesia, then on to Australia? I ask a friend who works in the field, who has no doubt heard many stories of families disappeared, where I should start. She says she will contact someone else with more experience.

A boat sinks off the coast of Indonesia while I am waiting to hear back, only 50 metres from the shore. The passengers had been hailing the Australian government for more than a day. Photos show stunned rescuers carrying small, limp bodies.

My friend’s friend replies that it is very hard to find missing asylum seekers. She advises I try the Red Cross, which runs a tracing service for families, occasionally friends, separated by conflict or disaster; they try to keep track of migratory patterns across the globe, of years spent in flimsy, temporary tents.

‘Notoriously difficult though,’ this friend’s friend adds, ‘and Australia designs it so that people are unfindable in the detention network.’ We may never know whether this family’s boat fell to pieces in the water, or if they were sent to Nauru or Manus Island, or some other fate.

On Thursday night before I go to bed I check Twitter. A boat of asylum seekers, most from Eritrea, sank near Lampedusa, an island in Italy. 194 people are dead, 200 are missing, possibly more. I imagine the cold horror of the ocean pressing about their lungs. ‘[T]he water that closes above them,’ Tiso writes, about these kind of sinkings, ‘already a kind of forgetting.’ They are human-made tragedies certain to recur. I read somewhere that only one in three people are ever recovered from these drownings in European waters. I read somewhere else that maritime border policing ends in more fatalities because it forces people to take more treacherous routes. These deaths are the preordained conclusion of border control, and a fate common to those excluded from refuge. In Australia alone, the estimated sum of ‘intercepting asylum seekers and illegal fishers for 4 years’ is $8.1 billion (with the cost of detention hovering at $2.5 billion).

Researching later, I come across Australia-Asylum.com, a site obviously affiliated with the Australian government, with the menacing tagline, ‘think twice – do not get misled – you will lose everything’. A photo slide shows a photograph of a burning boat and people in the water struggling to stay afloat. The caption reads, ‘Australia’s closed to Sri Lankans without Genuine Visas’, as though Sri Lankans intending to leave their country because of political or religious persecution are eligible for a special class of visa.

Despite all this money and effort, researchers Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks found that of the 24 184 asylum seekers who arrived by boat between 1998 and 2011 in Australia, 97.3 per cent arrived safely.

‘It is not enough to have a politics that has “public mourning” as its final goal,’ writes Judith Butler. I think of Lampedusa, and the deaths in Australian waters over the years. ‘The point of public mourning is to expand our ideas of what constitutes a livable life, to expand our recognition of those lives that are worth protecting, worth valuing.’

We should take these human beings and give them refuge before desperation sets in, otherwise we are drawing a border between our liveable lives, and those we exclude. There are three children on my list: one is eleven, one is six, and the youngest will turn three this month. Are they not worth protecting?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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