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Opinion: If Palestinians disappear, who cares?
Published Sunday 05/08/2012 (updated) 05/08/2012 21:26
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House keys were kept by many Palestinians who became refugees in
1948 and have become powerful symbols of the right of return.
(MaanImages/Charlie Hoyle)

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
1 ) Tony B? / ME
05/08/2012 12:39
"Who is responsible for the rights of the refugees from 1948 and their descendants? And when will justice finally be done?"
The Arab countries that told those original Pals to move out while they annihilated the Jews are responsible, along with those Pals who left, thinking they would return to take the property of massacred Jews.
You really don't get it do you? You have never had the support of other nations. You are just being used as a disposable tool to destroy Israel.

2 ) Ben Alofs / UK/Netherlands
05/08/2012 12:40
A powerful story from Osam Qashoo about the tragic fate of a group of Palestinian refugees. Part of the silence surrounding the issue is explained by a guilty conscience. Palestinian refugees and their rights have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. But ending on a positive note: Palestinians won't disappear. They are struggling in their homeland, they have SUMUD and although governments let them down, the people of this world support them, because they recognize a just cause.

3 ) Elder of Ziyon / USA
05/08/2012 15:16
The number of lies and distortions in this article is quite high. But besides the errors of fact around the boats, the main point is equally deceptive. Arabs are the ones who have refused to give equal rights to Palestinians. Iraq is the prime example where the Palestinians were attacked, murdered and chased out after Saddam's fall. Yet no Arab nation offered to take those refugees in; only Western nations did. Qashoo knows this and tries to twist the facts, when the blame goes to Arab leaders.

4 ) Kath / USA
05/08/2012 15:45
Law of Return (1950) This law grants every Jew (defined as those who convert or have their mother as a Jew) the right to immigrate to Israel automatically. On the other hand, Palestinians who fled in fear during 1948 and 1967 have not been granted the right to return as mandated by the UN. This is systematic discrimination based on race.

5 ) Paul / South Africa
05/08/2012 15:51
There should be no Arab refugees. Lets be clear on this, they are Arabs & should have been absorbed by all the numerous Arab countries, after all they share the same culture, religions & race. This is the true tradegy. They only have themselves to blame. Compare those refugees to the Jewish refugees who survived the genocide in Europe & the Arab Jewish refugees who where kicked out by the Arab countries, whose descendents now number about 5 mill - All fully absorbed by little Israel.

6 ) Kath / USA
05/08/2012 16:14
@Paul:This perspective assumes that all Arab/Muslim states are the same, rather than acknowledging the wide variety of cultures, foods, customs, dialects and climates represented by them. According to the same logic, an Italian should feel right at home in Finland just because the majority in both countries are white and Christian.Furthermore, why should they? When they have a legitimate right and historical and familial ties to the land in which they were raised- there is no reason for them to

7 ) Ben Alofs / UK/Netherlands
05/08/2012 17:07
To posters 1, 3 and 5. The indigenous people of Palestine were displaced and dispossessed in 1948 by immigrant settlers from Europe. Palestine was overwhelmingly Arab and the only way the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine could ever be implemented was through dispossession and ethnic cleansing. The Zionist lies that Palestinians left voluntarily is contradicted by sources coming from the UN, Britain and even Israel. They all confirm the narrative of the Palestinian peasant refugees!!!

8 ) Phil / UK
05/08/2012 18:46
#7) Ben Alofs. You have been watching too many Pallywood movies. The Jew and Arab population of Israel before 1948 was roughly equal. The agreement for a Jewish state to be created was made by Arabs, Jews, English and French etc, at San Rhemo (look it up on wikipedia) It was ratified by the League of Nations and later by the UN. It was the Arabs who broke that agreement and waged a war of annihilation, which they lost. That is what created the current Pal refugee situation. Your claims are lies!

9 ) Ismail and Isaac / Palestine
05/08/2012 19:31
Truth is like a sharp knife, it cuts through confusion with certainty. It's no surprise that most posts left by zionist apologists are filled with fear, hate and immature defense mechanisms. Allah forgive them.

10 ) Jihane / Palestine/France
05/08/2012 20:43
@ Phil Yeah, and you've been sniffing too much Ziocaine ! In 1947: 650.000 Jews in Palestine (33,24%). In the first overall census 1922 83,790 Jews (11,14%), and according to Bachi, 42.000 Jews in 1893. Look up Palestine demographics/Mideatsweb - And mideastweb is NOT pro-Palestinian ! When people start out about the San Remo blahblah, we know right-wing Zionists are in sight !

11 ) Paul / South Africa
05/08/2012 21:17
@ Kath (6) Oh come on Kath, are you saying all Jews are the same, same culture, come from same climate, eat same food? They inergrated very well in Israel, as there is a common bond. Just like the Arabs have a common bond. But then again, illegal American settlers trying to justify their own occupation of Red Indian lands, just doesnt go down very well.

12 ) Trffid / Australia
05/08/2012 22:47
I note the usual hasbara by the Zionists - the latest being Paul. All of you need to go and read some real history instead of the Ziocaine. Try starting with one of your own - Benny Morris. At least he admits that the Palestinians were ethnically cleansed as a "necessary evil".

13 ) France / France
07/08/2012 13:31
Zionists can't understand the strong relationship between a human being and his homeland. They think that people (even the Jews!!) can be moved, uprooted and transfered anywhere like merchandises.
Zionists are wasting their time , the hasbara is doomed to fail, the too obvious cruel reality they created on the ground can't anymore be hidden.

14 ) Robby / USA
14/08/2012 07:40
6 ) Kath / USA - How many refugees do we take into our country and deny rights? How many do we keep in "camps"? How many do we deny access to over 70 jobs? How many to we deny property ownership? The Arab treatment of Palestinians is pure apartheid - past (original refugees), present (their offspring), and future. This treatment of the Palestinians for generations should be as embarrassing for the Arabs as the KKK is to us.
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