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Opinion: If Palestinians disappear, who cares?

Aug. 5, 2012 10:31 A.M. (Updated: April 29, 2015 7:03 P.M.)
By: Osama Qashoo
On June 21, 27 and 29, three asylum seeker vessels heading from the port of Pelabuhan Ratu on the south-eastern coast of Java, a popular embarkation point for Australia's coast, disappeared. The boats were overladen with men, women and children desperately seeking a new life when they sank.

Such tragedies are all too common in the world of people smuggling. But this horror has an extra dimension to it, as the majority of the missing passengers were Palestinian refugees. This has led to a cruel fiasco of disinterest from all the regional authorities, who, even 30 days after the disappearance have failed to send out any search party for the missing. The trail of disinterest spreads from the Australian government right the way to the Palestinian Authority itself.

Whilst other families of the missing have received some contact and support from the authorities, the Palestinian families, in Iraqi refugee camps, are still left without news of their relatives. Some 28 Palestinians were in the boats believed to have sunk between Indonesia and Australia.

For an entire month now, families of the Palestinian refugees from Iraq have been waiting for news of their family members still missing at sea. Their story is the tragedy of the ongoing Palestinian refuge issue itself. The grandparents of those missing were forced to flee their homes in the cities of Acre and Haifa in 1948 after the creation of Israel. After years of hardships, roaming from refugee camp to refugee camp in the Middle East, these families arrived, penniless and stateless, in Iraq.

In Iraq, poverty and war stayed with the refugee families until in utter despondency, their children and grandchildren once again set off escaping sectarian violence after the war on Iraq and got stuck in the middle of the desert for years on the Jordan-Iraq border. Some of them were dispatched to Brazil where they are now living in the jungle and the rest set out yet again for an unknown future towards Europe.

Cyprus, not so long ago, was a friend to the Palestinian cause; a people with a shared past, dating back to the Phoenician times. Now however, with money talking louder than the Cypriot government's conscience, Palestinian refugees are even treated as criminals there. And so the families were left to live on the streets, without schooling and in severe breach of their basic human rights and devoid of any support from the authority and with little to no chance of their asylum cases being accepted.

Finally, in desperation, families established humble funds to sail the families towards Australia. A bad idea certainly as Australia's reputation for helping the world's needy who arrive on their shores is also at an all time low.

For two decades, Australia has experimented with different asylum policies. The destitute who attempt to reach Australia by boat in order to claim refugee status or 'boat people' typically make their way from the world's trouble spots, including Iraq and Sri Lanka. Once they arrive in Indonesia or Malaysia professional smugglers are engaged who arrange unsecured transit to Australia on small freighters or large fishing boats.

In 2011, the media brought us images of asylum seekers in Australia mounting the rooftops of their detention centers. Their protest finally brought to light the inhumane conditions faced in what amounts to little more than concentration camps on the Australian mainland and especially on Christmas Island. The riots were a reflection of the anger and frustration with the Australian government's policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers until their status is determined; this process that can take more than two years.

Yet still the 'boat people' head to Australia. Not in great numbers as the government there would have you believe. In numbers small enough to make it clear that Australia is still failing to meet its international minimum duties regarding the acceptance and aid of asylum seekers.

The number of men, women and children awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted refugee status is relatively low compared to other countries.

UNHCR has reported that Australia had 5,242 official asylum seekers whose cases were pending at the end of 2011, which does not even place Australia in the top 40 states with the largest number of asylum seekers worldwide. Last year, there were some 4,500 migrants who entered Australian territory by boat, according to the Immigration Department and Minister for Home Affairs (up from about 2,700 boat people in 2009).

A minuscule amount in immigration terms. But these people are amongst the most desperate of all; those who with no hope for a future anywhere else pile into unsafe vessels praying for a safe haven.

Today, the confusion about what precisely is the fate of the Palestinians aboard the most recent boats to sink in this desperate search for justice remains unclear.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has closed the dedicated information collection telephone line it operated following the sinking on June 21 and 27 for the two asylum seeker vessels.

Relatives of the missing continue to telephone the department seeking information on loved ones they believe may have been on one of the vessels. In accordance with Australia's privacy laws, the department refuses to release information about people who have arrived in Australia seeking asylum.

All people who survived the sinking, say the authorities, have telephoned a relative or friend to let them know of their arrival on Christmas Island. They have also been issued with a telephone card which they can use to telephone other relatives or friends.

Yet, only in a small number of cases have the authorities been able to match the names of survivors with the names of people sent to them leaving families in a terrible limbo.

What happened to the boats? Why did they sink? Did they sink? Why the silence in the media about such a tragedy which usually sparks front pages and comment pieces about asylum seekers and the status of refugees?

Perhaps worst of all for the families awaiting what will now certainly be bad news has been the silence from the Palestinian Authority itself.

One caller to a regional ambassador to Indonesia/Malaysia said he was told; "I'll look into the matter after my lunch next Wednesday." The call was made on Friday. Nothing has been heard since.

The Australian Red Cross (in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent counterparts) is assisting in providing tracing services for survivors and the immediate family members of passengers aboard the vessels. The Australian authorities have made it clear that as this incident occurred at sea, they may never be able to confirm the identities of all victims. The Department is unable to provide further details at this time.

The question then arises, the question that will remain the same until the Palestinian people are given their legal right to return to their own land: Who is responsible for the rights of the refugees from 1948 and their descendants? And when will justice finally be done?

Osama Qashoo is a film maker and human rights advocate based in the UK and Palestine
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