I'm sorely tempted to not write about asylum seekers. I really don't want to. It's too awful. But my conscience compels me. It seems like every time I write an article about this, the story is worse than the last one.
The last time I wrote, our government was complaining that while the Human Rights Commission was criticising them for holding children in detention and the United Nations was highlighting their failure to respect the human rights of asylum seekers in general, no-one was was giving them credit for the amazing human rights achievement of preventing people from drowning at sea. Mind you, they have never presented a scrap of evidence that they have done this. They have prevented boatloads of people from arriving in Australia by intercepting them on the way here and sending them back, but there is no evidence that I have seen about where they end up.
Now we are seeing just how hollow this claim is. It is becoming clear that something like 8,000 asylum seekers are currently at sea around South-East Asia in leaky boats. Most of them are Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in particular for years - many settled in Australia before our government turned hostile, but many more simply crossed the border into Thailand where they live in camps supported by international aid agencies. Others have made their way further south to Malaysia where they are officially illegal immigrants but in practice are tolerated and able to work in the grey economy.
They have plenty of reasons to flee. The government of Myanmar has been pursuing a slow but consistent program of genocide. It officially denies they exist, even going to the extent of refusing to attend international forums where they are discussed by name. It claims instead that they are simply Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh, from which it says they have entered the country illegally and to which it says they should return. However, they are also persecuted in Bangladesh where they are a minority ethnic group. Meanwhile, most of those still in Myanmar (around 800,000) have been driven from their homes and are living in 'displacement camps' where they rely on charitable donations of food (often stolen by Burmese officials) and are subject to further violence and harassment by the military and extremist Burmese nationalists.
Recently, the Thai government has increased surveillance on its border with Myanmar, preventing refugees from crossing there. In any case, the Thai border is on the other side of Myanmar to Rakhine state and the Rohingya have to cross unfriendly country to get there. This means that the safest and quickest avenue of escape is by boat, departing from Myanmar's western coastline and seeking landfall in a safer place.
There are two problems. The first is that their boats are not seaworthy. The second is that the governments of the three countries whose waters they enter as they pass down the coast (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) are determined to prevent them from landing. Thai officials will hurry them along the coast towards Malaysia. Malaysian officials will give them food, water and directions to Indonesia. Indonesian officials will do the same and send them back again. Their boats are not fit to head into the open ocean in an attempt to reach India (and in any case, no-one on board has the navigational skill to get them there) and there is little point any more in attempting the marginally less dangerous crossing to Australia.
The result is that something like 8,000 of them are floating aimlessly around, some for as long as four months, begging asylum from one country after another. If their boats were arranged by people smugglers their 'official' crew have long since jumped ship and gone home. In the meantime they suffer dehydration and malnutrition. They turn on one another in desperation and there is violence and murder. Some try to swim for shore and drown in the process.
This is what "stopping the boats" means. I dare Mr Abbott to claim it as a stunning human rights achievement now!
He hasn't gone that far, but he still seems a long way from growing a conscience. The ABC reports the following.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he supported regional countries taking action to stop people smuggling boats by turning them around and stood by the Australian Government doing the same.
"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary."
What else can he say? He can hardly ask other countries to do what he is not prepared for us to do, and show some basic human decency. He can hardly say "nothing is worth the suffering these people are enduring, we just have to do better". He can only stand by and applaud as our neighbours pull ahead of us in the race to the bottom. Soon, though, he will have to further ramp up Australia's level of deterrence as even permanent detention on Manus Island starts to look better than the other alternatives on offer.
Of course there are other alternatives. The most obvious and simple is to admit that the whole project is a cruel farce, and agree to accept these people in wealthy, comfortable Australia where 8,000 desperate refugees would merge into the existing population without a trace and within a few years become productive, valued members of our communities.
Upping the degree of difficulty a little, we could work to solve the problem at its source by changing the terms of our engagement with Myanmar. Over the last couple of years, Australia and other countries in the region have increasingly embraced Myanmar in response to its military junta taking a few baby steps towards democracy. No matter that these baby steps did not include either relaxing the military's hold on power, or stopping the genocide of Rohingya which has, if anything, got worse. Of course this is tricky - an invasion would cause untold suffering, and even sanctions would mostly hurt the poorest people in the community while leaving the rulers untouched. But surely we can do better than turning blind eye, which is what we are doing right now.
Meantime, there is one bright note in all this horror. After a boat containing something like 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers was turned around by both Malaysian and Indonesian navies during a journey that seems to have lasted at least two months, they were finally rescued and brought ashore by poor Acehnese fishermen and brought to their village of Kuala Cangkoi in North Aceh . Many of them had died before the rescue, fighting had broken out between the two groups, all of the passengers were weak and dehydrated and some had suffered from meningitis. The military and officials may have been able to ignore this terrible suffering, but the fisherman reached out in common humanity. They did so at some risk to themselves, since bringing them ashore could be seen as facilitating illegal immigration.
Once they were ashore it was impossible to send them back, and they are safe for the present. What the future holds is anyone's guess but I think the fishermen of Kuala Cangkoi have pointed the way for us. If they can see that it is just not right to leave people to starve aboard leaky boats then surely the rest of us can too. If ordinary citizens can act with common humanity, surely our governments can follow suit.
We can always hope.