Playing across the Australian National Maritime Museum’s dramatic roofline every night during this year’s late summer is a vibrant tableau of images called Waves of Migration. This eight-minute projected animation paints the museum roof with stories of those who’ve come across the seas to make Australia their home. It runs daily from 9.30 pm–11 pm until 13 February.
Among its themes are glimpses of ‘boat people’ who have fled regional conflicts in recent decades, hoping to reach our shores to find security for themselves and their families. Waves of Migration depicts voyages made in small, overcrowded wooden boats, in 1977 and 2009.
Now there’s a detailed record, in words, photos and video, of an even more recent asylum-seeker voyage published in the New York Times Magazine of 15 November 2013, by courageous journalists Luke Mogelson and Joel van Houdt. Last year they risked their lives to sail from Indonesia to the nearest Australian territory, Christmas Island, on a tiny fishing boat dangerously overloaded with some two dozen asylum seekers.
For several days the journalists shared their hardships, crammed in the bilges of this undecked craft barely 10 metres long. Their extraordinary account presents, for the first time ever, graphic and dramatic on-board documentation of the suffering of people who risk their lives at sea to try for better lives in our land.
It’s believed that over 1000 men, women and children have died attempting this voyage since 2001.
The ‘boat people’ story began with refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s – represented in Waves of Migration by museum collection vessel Tu Do (‘Freedom’). They were fleeing the victorious communist regime at the end of its long war against the USA and allies, including Australian forces.
The most recent waves of water-borne asylum seekers have fled war, oppression or hardship in a wide variety of countries. Tamils from Sri Lanka, like Vietnamese before them, have sailed directly from their country crammed into fishing boats.
Others, from as far away as Africa and the Middle East, have paid people smugglers to make the last passage of their long journeys on ramshackle, overcrowded work boats sailing from Indonesia to Christmas Island. They include people fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan, in the aftermath of US invasions supported again by Australian forces during the ‘War on Terror’.
The museum’s rooftop projection Waves of Migration includes the 2009 voyage of 17-year-old Hedayat Osyan, a member of the persecuted Hazara minority of Afghanistan. He is shown holding a ring and an embroidered handkerchief, the sole keepsakes given to him by his mother and sister as he fled for his life from the Taliban.
Hedayat donated the embroidery to the museum as he related his experience of a grueling and dangerous voyage from Lombok, Indonesia, to Christmas Island. The story appeared in the museum’s quarterly journal Signals (Number 102, March–May 2013).
He was fortunate. He was granted asylum after a short period of detention, went to school in Sydney and is now studying at university. Hedayat arrived at a time when a reported 90% of boat arrivals were being assessed as genuine refugees and granted visas.
That seems impossible for the miserable souls shown in the recent New York Times Magazine article, who against all odds reached Christmas Island safely. They arrived during a recent hardening of government policy, aimed at deterring people from making these dangerous and unauthorised voyages by refusing to grant entry to any applicants who arrive in this manner.
Journalists Mogelson and van Houdt made brief headlines in Australia when they disembarked at Christmas Island last September, before flying safely home to write up their story. With a somewhat bitter irony, they called it ‘The Dream Boat’.
For their fellow passengers the dream of secure and stable lives in Australia was to be shattered on arrival. They face extended detention in harsh conditions on remote islands, repatriation or, at best, the offer of asylum in the struggling and impoverished Melanesian nation Papua New Guinea.
To learn more of who these people are and what it was like to voyage here, read ‘The Dream Boat’ by Luke Mogelson and Joel van Houdt.
Jeffrey Mellefont, editor Signals magazine 1989–2013