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