REFUGEE SERIES: Christmas Island witnessed horrific shipwreck of migrant vessel

Published: November 18, 2012

The broken propeller of the wooden ship that crashed on the rocks, killing an estimated 50 people on Dec. 15, 2010, acts as a memorial on the northern cliffs of Christmas Island in Australia. Submitted photo


Christmas Island — named by the captain of a British East India Company vessel that sailed past it on Christmas Day of 1643 — is 135 square kilometres, blanketed with thick and tangled jungle. Its 120 million red crabs vastly outnumber the 1,400 people who live there. The island is a destination for nature enthusiasts, who flock there during the annual crab migration during the wet season, when the creatures carpet the roads as they crawl from the jungle to the sea.

The principal industry is phosphate mining, with a smaller slice of the economy supported by tourism.

Christmas Island’s population is mostly Malay and Chinese, with a small number of Australians. The Asian community lives around Poon San Road, where there’s an outdoor movie theatre with weathered red benches and a black-and-white, Andy-Warhol-like painting of Marilyn Monroe on the back of the screen.

The ex-pats, tourist resorts and villas are located in an area called Settlement. The single main road is lined with a snorkel and fishing shop, surf shops and the Golden Bosun pub, the watering hole where locals grab a drink and play poker after work and where tourists watch the sunset. It was from the Golden Bosun pub on Dec. 15, 2010, that island residents watched the horrific shipwreck of the SIEV 221, a migrant vessel carrying an estimated 90 to 100 people that was thrown onto the sharp rocks by violent waves.

Tanja and Chris Schonewald were at their home on Rocky Point Road when they heard a crash followed by piercing screams.

They ran around the corner toward the pub in time to see the boat being tossed around, heading for the rocks.

“People were shouting and crying,” Schonewald said. “A wave would pick the boat up and almost brought it onto the rocks. It eventually crashed onto the cliff face and then it just fell apart very quickly.”

The turquoise blue water was filled with men, women and children, desperately trying to grab onto the wooden debris of the boat that was supposed to bring them to safety.

Dozens of people watched in helpless horror, unable to climb down the cliff face to help.

“Everybody witnessed people drowning in front of us. There were so many people perishing in the water that you couldn’t number them in front of you. You would focus on one individual because you knew that person was in trouble and not able to take your eyes off them, you just knew this person was suffering.

“Little babies. My husband saw a baby die and was unable to do anything.”

On the northern cliff face overlooking Flying Fish Cove, the bent propeller of the ill-fated ship acts as a memorial.

It reads: “We will reflect on this day with sadness. The loss of each person’s life diminishes our own because we are part of humankind. As you read this, please remember all asylum seekers who have attempted this treacherous journey.”

The Times Colonist’s Katie DeRosa travelled throughout Australia and Thailand to learn more about Australia’s mandatory-detention policy and talk to refugees, in an effort to understand why they would pay a human smuggler and risk their lives getting on a boat.
She travelled to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, 360 kilometres south of Indonesia, where hundreds of people arrive a month and where all refugees are initially held in one of two detention centres. She also visited Northam in Western Australia, where the government has just spent $125 million on a new detention centre;  the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, where refugee families are held in a suburb-like alternative detention centre called Inverbrackie; and Dandenong just outside Melbourne, where a thriving Afghan refugee community has revitalized a previously dead area. And finally, she travelled to Sydney, where an Afghan Hazara refugee has used art and the support of an Australian family to thrive in community detention.
In Bangkok, DeRosa talked to refugee families who are stuck in limbo waiting to be resettled. They live in constant fear of being rounded up by the Thai police, which refugee advocates say drives them to pay human smugglers for a spot on a boat.
DeRosa’s project is the first to be funded by the new James Travers Fellowship, created in memory of the former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star.

The series continues Tuesday.

Today: Canada introduces mandatory detention
Sunday: A visit to Christmas Island, the first stop for most boat refugees
Tuesday: Yongah Hill Detention Centre is refugees’ first experience of the Australian mainland
Wednesday: A young refugee is released into the community and finds his way through art
Thursday: Inverbrackie is a detention centre that looks like a suburban community
Friday: Refugees bring life back to a struggling city
Saturday: Refugees in Bangkok wait and hope for a new life

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