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Boat people trying to slip into Australia (Pic courtesy Google Images)

I’m trying to picture the waters between the Paracel Islands on the left and the Spratly Islands to the right, in the otherwise turbulent South China Sea. Today, June 10th 1977 however, it was calm as a backyard pool, the visibility as far as the eyes could see. The waves were tiny and they lapped against the massive hull of the 16000ton Yuvali half-heartedly and dissolved docilely back into the wake. 

If the waters hadn’t been so placid, Capt Meir Tadmor probably wouldn’t have spotted it, so tiny was the boat, not an inch over 20 feet. But it had 66 souls on it. The boat was bare and the bedraggled people huddling together in it wore no life jackets. But what stopped the grizzled Israeli captain up short was the people in the boat. Packed so tight that even a slight lateral movement was impossible, they stared back silently in a trance, not uttering a single word or cry for help. Their faces didn’t register any emotion. Relief, excitement, elation…..nothing. They were about to be saved. Someone was at last taking them in, but they didn’t seem to feel anything at all. 

The Yuvali heaved to and a detail of four men with a crate of bottled water cast off in a zodiac and sped toward the boat which was bobbing up and down in the gentle swells. Soon after, the zodiac guided the boat in and helping hands reached down to help the people get on board. 

The Captain stood by the rigging as they passed him one by one, having to be led by their hands up a few steps to the sickbay for a check-up and first-aid if necessary. The last one in spoke broken English and from him he heard a story so horrific as to beggar belief. The boat had started with 87 on board and had tried to make landfall first near Macau and then up the coast from Hong Kong had been chased away by patrol boats. They had no choice but to turn back to open sea and had been drifting for days. 21 perished and were tipped over into the waters, before the Yuvali came upon them. The man had let go of the little hands of his own son in this manner. 

Capt Tadmor sought and received approval from his homeland, to let the 66 remain on board and be brought back to live in Israel. The Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, sent out a message to the world…. 

“We never have forgotten the St. Louis with 900 Jews, that left Germany a week before the Second World War began. It travelled from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused. Exhausted, they turned back to Europe and it is not known exactly how many perished in the Nazi concentration camps and how many survived. We did not want the same thing to happen to anyone ever again and therefore it was natural to give those 66 Vietnamese people a haven in the Land of Israel.” 

The story of the 66 Vietnamese is probably one of just a handful of happy endings to the story of the Vietnamese boat people, mainly South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the American military during the Vietnam War. They were now trying to escape terrible retribution at the hands of the victorious communist North, following the defeat and withdrawal of the Americans, post-1975. 

Of the over 200000 Vietnamese who left Vietnam in flimsy boats, only about 45000 actually made it through, alive. Later on, the American and Canadian governments took in 250000 refugees through a structured program. They arrived, began a new life and being innately hard working and enterprising, they prospered as engineers, dentists, dry cleaners and convenience store owners in the farthest corners of our land. You cannot find a more docile and law-abiding people here, than the Vietnamese.  

Another story of a different set of boat people is unfolding today around the northern coastline of Australia. It is about Australia and the boat people it is desperately trying to shoo away. Australia has been a favored destination for boat people for centuries, ever since James Cook made landfall sometime in the late 1700s. Those were a different kind of boat people, murderous and aggressive. Over the years, the new arrivals slaughtered and swept aside the original inhabitants, the aborigines, and declared themselves the real Australians. 

The descendants of those early boat people, now numbering some 20 million, have decided that Australia is full up. If you try to land there in a boat today, you’ll be unceremoniously shipped off to the postcard-sized island nation of Nauru or the poorest island nation in the world, Papua New Guinea. Australia has bribed to the gills, the heads of these tiny nations to hold you while your refugee papers are processed (which could take your remaining lifetime). 

The villain of the piece has to be elsewhere, not in Australia. It is persecution and poverty and the strife that goes with it, in other parts of the world. The boat people are a cornucopia of misery. They are Sri Lankan Tamils hounded by Sinhalese security forces, Afghans abandoned by the ISAF who had employed them as interpreters and now running from the extremists, Iranians who had dared to rise against the mullahs in 2009 and Bangladeshis and Phillipinos who have simply been abandoned even by hope and have nowhere to go but into the hands of the human smugglers. 

Australia used to be a favored refugee destination a decade back, but not anymore. The flood of asylum seekers continues unabated. The 2013 influx figures have already outstripped the number that landed in boats, the whole of 2012. Unemployment in an increasingly competitive and globalized economy has polarized the population, with the established Australians alarmed and wanting nothing to do with the refugees. The politicians in power are sandwiched between the need to appease the vote banks and to not seem heartless to the outside world. 

You have to agree that it sometimes helps for India to be firmly in the third world. Just imagine having a sea of Somalis or Mande tribesmen from Mali jamming into a bus in Mumbai. Trust me, you wouldn’t be thrilled.

The ‘us and them’ mindset has already surfaced. The next time you are near a building project or a farm in Punjab or Maharashtra, watch how Bihari workers are treated.