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Today’s Boat People: What Can We Do to Help Refugees?

Today’s Boat People: What Can We Do to Help Refugees?


A boat carrying 200 refugees from Indonesia capsized Thursday in the Indian Ocean. The refugees were on their way to Australia, likely to Christmas Island, a popular destination for asylum-seekers in neighboring countries. They were still 120 miles from shore when the boat hit heavy currents and flipped over. Recent reports reveal that about 90 of them have drowned.

The story of this overcrowded boat sinking in the Indian Ocean is a small blurb in the news of the world today, but it represents one of many big problems facing refugees who flee their homelands — and it’s a story worth our attention, especially this week in June, which I just discovered is known as Refugee Week.

Stories like this conjure memories of the “boat people” of the early 1970s who fled from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Of the 1.5 million immigrants who escaped on overcrowded and crudely made boats in search of freedom, one third of them died. I find it startling to learn that hundreds of refugees still perish each year in a similar way. Last year, 600 refugees drowned while fleeing Libya, 180 people from Indonesia drowned on their way to Australia, and 40 Haitians died in a shipwreck on their way to America.

How is it possible that today’s “boat people” are still dying in droves? How is it that refugees fleeing 21st century genocides, civil wars and famines face such dangers on the path to safety? What have we learned from the past?

If there’s a legacy of the refugee experience for today, perhaps we can find it in art and literature, where the psychological and emotional scars of the past still linger and where today’s traumas find creative expression.

The 2001 story of the 15 Moroccan immigrants drowning on a fishing boat en route to Spain inspired Laila Lalami to write the book of short stories, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.” Isaac Julien, a photographer and filmmaker, in an installation called Small Boats, provocatively conveys the African migrant refugee experience through images of boats washed ashore, never having reached their destination, and photos of shadowy figures drowning.

The refugees’ journey — the perils of traveling to safety — reverberates throughout our culture with the help of artists and writers. Maybe through this creative expression, Thursday’s tragedy and others like it will find their way into the hearts and minds of those who can change the tide.


Related Stories:

Migrants ‘Left to Die’ in Mediterranean Tragedy

Indonesia ‘Mistreating’ Refugee Disaster Survivors

90 Percent of Undocumented Immigrants Enter Europe Through Greece


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Photo credit: Pierre Holtz for OCHA, "Mission to Sam Ouandja"

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2:34PM PST on Jan 10, 2013

Thanks. Very sad. I think it takes a lot of courage to try and change their circumstances.

2:33PM PST on Jan 10, 2013

...didn't let me finish.........and worry about the plight of Australia's indigenous people, who also have children and receive little of the tax payer funded liberal hand outs given to illegal immigrants!

2:20PM PST on Jan 10, 2013

Ernest R. Infedil unbelievers?! so put them back on their leaky boats, mate!

5:53PM PDT on Jun 29, 2012

Greed, absolute greed. The so-called people letting these refugees get on these boats should be held responsible. Why are they not being targeted and dealt with?

4:20PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

@ Sarah M..'How is it possible that today’s “boat people” are still dying in droves?" There are now more refugees than ever before in the world in which there are many more peoople than ever before. Dion't see the connection ? One of the main problems is difficult access to food, one of the major causes of Arab Spring, despite the claim that "there is enough food to feed everyone. The problem is distribution". I have heard that repeated for the last 60 years before the crop devastation from floods and fire.
How does it happen, that boatloads of Muslims leave Muslim Indonesia in leaky boats to go to Australia, a land of infidel unbelievers ? Like Catholics, Muslims have too many children. It has become a problem for us all.

2:41PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

my prayers with them

2:32PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

so sad!

5:27AM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

The same happens here in Greece with boats coming from Turkey (through which refugees come from the East). It's so sad! What must be done is to fix the countries which 'create' refugees, to finally end poverty and hardships! All these years, and nothing is being done, only more refugees are 'created' even in western countries... when does this ends??

11:09PM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

I live in Australia and am truly ashamed of our present and past Governments' when it comes to their policies regarding Asylum-seekers that try to reach our shores by way of these non- seaworthy vessels. Many lives have been lost over many years, including men, women and children. This latest boat was reported to be carrying refugees from Iraq and Afganistan. Ironically the two countries they have managed to destroy in the name of bringing them our Democracy. Our statistics show that most of our illegal immigrants arrive by plane and are not refugees, they just overstay their visa. Politicians are the problem - how can they be part of the solution when their only interest is appeasing the voting public to keep in for another 3 years. Shame on you Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott you're still trying to point score today

1:14PM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

it is pathetic and my heart always cry for those helpless peoples who are suffering due to dirty politics and situation.we should think about it and help them .

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