Australian government hypocrisy over refugee funerals

In an act of utter duplicity, the Gillard government this week organised funeral services in Sydney for eight of the victims of the December 15 disaster, in which as many as 50 asylum seekers perished when their refugee boat, dubbed SIEV 221, crashed on remote Christmas Island.


The burials were a transparent attempt by the Labor government to distance itself from any responsibility for the catastrophe, while at the same time reinforcing its policy of mandatory detention for refugees arriving by boat—the very policy that led directly to the deaths.


The government flew 22 disaster survivors from detention centres at Christmas Island and Perth to Sydney for the services, but is insisting that all will be flown back, including an orphaned boy, aged 9.


Of the 30 refugees whose bodies were recovered from the wreckage, 17 were transported to Sydney or Iraq to be buried. The remaining 13 have still not been identified, two months after they died.


Not all detainees who wanted to attend the funerals were allowed to do so, only “close and direct family members.” According to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, this was “appropriate” in “these tragic circumstances”.

During the Muslim and Christian burial services, at Sydney’s Castlebrook Memorial Park and Rookwood Cemetery respectively, family members broke down as the trauma they had suffered erupted to the surface. Many of them called for the survivors to be released from detention or at least kept in community detention in Sydney, where they would be close to relatives.


Bowen flatly rejected this request. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that no detainees would be considered for release into the community except in accord with existing government policy. This included nine-year-old Seena Akhlaqui Sheikhdost, who lost both his parents and his little sister on December 15.


Psychiatrist Louise Newman, a member of the government’s own detention advisory panel, spoke out against Bowen’s callous response on ABC Radio this morning: “The concerns from a psychiatric perspective would be that this child… and the other orphans and children who’ve been exposed to this are at acute risk of mental disorder. Take advice from mental health and health professionals in the interests of prevention of mental deterioration and potentially very severe mental health consequences.”


After indicating he would “consider” releasing Seena into the care of his Sydney relatives, Bowen said the young orphan would nevertheless be sent back to Christmas Island today as planned.


Until the funeral itself, the bodies of those who died had been kept locked away from family members in a morgue on Christmas Island, despite the fact that Islamic burial traditions require the body to be washed and buried as soon as a person dies.


The government’s decision that the caskets remain closed at the funeral meant the families were never able to view the bodies of their loved ones. An immigration department spokesman told ABC News: “On advice from the imams we consulted, it was determined that it would not be appropriate … It would be insensitive and traumatic to the families of the bereaved to go into further detail.”


The government’s apparent “sensitivity” to the trauma suffered by the refugees did not extend to consulting a single family member about their wishes prior to the burials.


Maidian El Ibrahimy survived the disaster, but his eight-month-old daughter Zahra, four-year-old son Nzar and 23-year-old wife Zman did not. He is currently being held in detention. The body of Zahra was recovered from the crash but not Nzar’s or Zman’s.


Just two days before the bodies were flown to Sydney, El Ibrahimy’s brother Oday told the ABC: “I just know that they will bring Zahra to Sydney but no-one has called me. My brother is coping very bad[ly]. He’s thinking about his family, he misses his wife and children. There are many, many problems. The government has not given me any details.”


The government did everything it could to prevent the real sentiments of the victims and their families from becoming public. As part of the deal for being allowed to attend the funerals, immigration officials demanded that detainees agree not to speak to the media.


At the Castlebrook funeral service, reporters from the local Rouse Hill Times were physically restricted from interviewing grieving family members by security guards from SERCO, the private company that runs the Christmas Island detention centre.


Two refugees attending the Rookwood funeral, Maidan and Hussaid Al Hussainy, nevertheless spoke to ABC News. Al Hussainy’s three-month-old son and wife died in the crash. His comments, according to a translator, were: “The residents of Christmas Island rescued them [the refugees who survived] and helped them, not the Australian government or the Australian officials. We thank the Australian people on Christmas Island for helping them while the Australian government did nothing.”

Immediately after the funeral, Al Hussainy and the other refugees were escorted onto a bus by security guards to be locked up at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre before being flown back to Perth or Christmas Island. Again, this was in direct contravention of Islamic traditions and customs, in which relatives mourn the dead for seven days with family members and friends.


The psychological impact of the government’s actions on the survivors will clearly be compounded by their further detention and isolation from family members. Al Hussainy’s cousin, Maissa Al-Gaderi, told the Australian before the funeral: “He’ll become crazy if he goes back to Christmas Island. He lost his wife and baby in Christmas Island so how can he (bury) his baby in (Sydney) and go back to Christmas Island?”


The Gillard government bears direct responsibility for the catastrophe and its impact on the victims’ families. Its anti-refugee “border protection” policy forces asylum seekers to enter the country in unseaworthy boats in a desperate attempt to flee war, persecution, and poverty. Moreover, in this particular case, its multi-billion dollar surveillance network inexplicably failed to report the arrival of the boat off storm-lashed Christmas Island and to organise a timely rescue.


On the day of the burials, Opposition leader Tony Abbott and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, in a blatant effort to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment, condemned the government for paying the cost of the families’ flight to Sydney for the services. Treasurer Wayne Swan hypocritically accused the Liberals of “stealing sound bites from One Nation,” the right-wing nationalist and racist party that emerged in the 1990s.

While Swan insisted this was “as low as you can go,” it has been his Labor government that has fomented precisely such xenophobic attitudes, as a calculated effort to divert growing hostility to widespread under-employment, wage-cutting, soaring living costs and the slashing of social services in a reactionary, anti-immigrant direction.

The services followed the government’s January 24 release of the report of an internal Australian Customs inquiry, which sought to clear the government and its military, police surveillance and intelligence network of any blame for the disaster. But the report raised more questions than it answered. (See: “Australia: Report leaves unanswered questions on refugee deaths”)

The report’s release was coupled with a media campaign denouncing the Indonesian crew members. The three Indonesian men have been brought before a Perth court and charged with serious “people smuggling” offences, after being held in prison for six weeks without charge.


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The Australian refugee boat disaster and the Labor government’s “border protection” regime
[23 December 2010]