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Oct 16, 2009

Meet Alex and Brindha: a media savvy bunch of boat people

The latest onset of asylum seekers isn't Rudd's Tampa, because this time the people aren't out of sight and out of mind of the media. Will it make the public care?


Andrew Bolt calls this latest boat docked off Merak in Indonesia “Rudd’s Tampa”.

Part of the reason why it’s not is because we’ve seldom seen images like this of boat people. We’re never up this close. And we haven’t heard soundbites from children before, or very articulate teachers like Alex.

Back in the Howard years, asylum seekers were kept well away from the camera. And children were definitely not seen or heard.

As David Manne, principal solicitor for the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, told Crikey:

“What we’ve seen and heard provides extremely compelling evidence of what these people are going through.

In the past, in the last decade, the Howard government went to extraordinary lengths to keep asylum seekers out of sight, out of mind, and out of rights.

There were very concerted strategies to do, with government instructions or directions to Australian authorities, including the military, to ensure that asylum seekers’ identities and voices were obscured.

… This was one of the key, potent propaganda tools to perpetrate this policy, which at its heart sought to deface and and then dehumanise these vulnerable people so that their faces coudn’t be seen and their stories couldn’t be heard.”

The images of today’s asylum seekers are not as tightly controlled, but being that they’re far away on Christmas Island, the Australian public never really get the chance to get up close and personal.

“At the heart of remote detention policy in this country is keeping asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind,” says Manne. “Because what’s also clear is, and our history tells us this, once the public is able to hear the stories and see the faces of these people, it touches people’s hearts and minds.”

Manne cites the example of rural communities and their role in advocating for refugee rights:

“One of the really important dynamics during the last decade of degeneration in the response to refugees was that one of the most important voices that opposed this was in rural and regional Australia. Many of those people who arrived by boat from 1999 to 2001 from Afghanistan and Iraq ended up living in rural and regional communities and became neighbours, became co-workers, co-parents with kids at school, and friends … These people became part of the Australian community and some of those communities became some of the most important voices in calling for a more humane and compassionate approach to refugees.”

A media scrum has descended on the boat in the dock at Merak, and the asylum seekers are speaking in soundbites. Not only that, these people have names. And cute children. They have clipped accents, they sound educated, they sound smart, they sound desperate, they sound like us.

It’s a little harder to work the “humane but hard-line approach to border security” angle, to try to outdo the Opposition leader in the hard-arse stakes in fact, when there are images of a small crying child pleading for help immediately preceding your soundbite.

This is Brindha:

“We are your children. Please think of us. Please. Please take us to your country. It’s OK if it’s not to Australia. It is better if any other country takes us.”

Somehow the tight-lipped demeanour doesn’t go down so well when Alex, the English teacher, has just politely congratulated you on your compassion in the past, and politely asks you to continue to extend that compassion.

Alex has left behind his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He said this to the media scrum:

“If you had no place, if you had no country of your own, what would you do? And how long would you stay in a boat before you were able to enter a country that will give you asylum?”

We are not animals. We are not dogs. We are not stray dogs. We are people without a country to live in.”

At this stage we don’t know the details of these people’s asylum claims, but nonetheless, if this continues, and these people are still docked when our Prime Minister makes it to Indonesia on Monday, how is Rudd going to play this?

“On current figures, current estimates, a refugee in Indonesia will on average take nine years to be resettled to a safe country,” says Manne. “Picture this: on average a nine-year wait, living at best in substandard conditions in a camp, periodically subject to imprisonment, and constantly at risk of being deported back to the scene of persecution. Living in a country that has not signed the refugee convention, can’t and won’t provide sanctuary to refugees and has a poor human rights record.”

Says Manne:

“This is a policy which has shifted from the Pacific Solution to the South-East Asian solution where Australia plays a central role in encouraging other countries like Indonesia to stop people coming here to seek safety … it seeks to get those countries to intercept people and then warehouse them in those countries and then Australia bankrolls the warehousing operations and exerts significant control over those warehousing operations.”

Alex was asked whether his group’s refusal to take their place in the refugee camps of Indonesia was unfair to the other asylum seekers who’d been waiting years.

He said: “I know it’s unfair. It’s very unfair. But the whole situation is so unfair, having no country of your own.”

Hard to argue with that. But now that Alex and Brindha are in our sights, will the public learn to care?



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michael james
All very emotional stuff, but if we look past the media-awareness of their spokesperson, here are the cold hard facts. If Alex, Brindha and their 220 compatriots do manipulate the system to ensure that they get a refugee place, then 224 persecuted Africa refugees will have to wait in a squalid hell hole of a refugee camp somewhere in Africa for another year, as their places were taken by the well heeled and well spoken arrivals from Sri-Lanka. Given reports that these people managed to pay $10-15,000 a place for a seat on that boat, had obtained a passport and… Read more »
David Roberts
Watching the reports I couldn’t recall refugees being interviewed (only after they were granted asylum). They wouldn’t jeopardise their request doing this in the country they were travelling to. Interesting set of circumstances generating such coverage – Rudd asks SBY to intervene, Navy obliges, media coverage with children and people Westerners can relate to, which must embarrass Rudd (one thinks they could have kept the media away). Indonesia then looks for aid to handle more refugees. In time Rudd will regret this path. As an aside and more along the line of what Michael is saying – I didn’t find… Read more »
As you sow so shall ye reap the good book says. Another proverb says you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Notwithstanding the pros and cons of refugees and or illegal immigrants, the current government’s relaxation of the harsh regime administered by the previous government, whilst electorally popular with the chattering classes, has arguably provided a stimulus for people smuggling. The recent upsurge in numbers would support this assertion. It is the people smugglers, whether their clients be true refugees or economic immigrants who make money out of this vile trade. One also has to ask why Australia… Read more »
Whether someone has money or not is beside the point of defining who is a refugee or not, I got the following from the UNHCR website: “The most important parts of the refugee definition are: Refugees have to be outside their country of origin; The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution; The fear of persecution has to be well-founded The persecution has to result from one or more of the 5 grounds listed in the definition, that is race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion; They have to be unwilling… Read more »
A funny thought occurred to me yesterday while watching this footage. More than ever, people are on the move in the world . Refugees, but also professionals (and ordinary working folk), popping across to the US, UK, Asia, Europe, for a spot of work and lifestyle. We’ve recently heard stories in the media of parents of eg. autistic children, leaving Australia to live and work in England, so their children can access apparently better support services. Strikes me that’s all people like Alex and the other unfortunates on this boat want – a better life, something different, a chance for… Read more »

sure, taking the boat people is supporting the people smuggling trade

(aside…why is people smuggling a vile trade?)

but denying them is supporting the genocide, the torture, the hardship, the dictator

(after all what is a dictator without his oppressed..just a dick, no?)

which would you prefer to support?

Thomas McLoughlin

well said Fred. Science Rudd is a sound bite looking for a moral principle, not realising it’s already a puddle next to his office wall.

Glenn Brandham
C’mon Fred. Under the other regime, SAS were used illegally to board the Tampa, refugees were then used by Peter Reith to inflame the population, with plenty of assistance by perps like Andrew Bolt, in order to whip up a frenzy of stupidity which resulted in Iraq being fingered for the deeds of Bin Laden and INVADED and DESTROYED, all in our grand country’s name. Meanwhile Bin Laden is still apparently free, so is Bolt, so is Reith…Rudd is doing something quite legal and heck, we even get to see and hear of the plight of some of these scary… Read more »
michael james
Sorry Glenn, your grasp of maritime law is a bit shaky. The Tampa was within Australian territorial waters, and had failed to comply with the orders of the relevant authority (the Commonwealth) and was then boarded by representatives of the Commonwealth to enforce the orders of the Commonwealth. Similar to the arrest of the Pong Soo off the NSW coast or the arrest of illegal fishing boats in the waters off Heard Island. These two were ships breaching Australian laws by refusing to comply with the orders of the legally constituted national authorities responsible for the waters in question. Thus… Read more »


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