“When I was on the boat I never thought I would survive, but countless times while I was in detention I wondered why I didn’t die”. 26/02/2016

“When I was on the boat I never thought I would survive, but countless times while I was in detention I wondered why I didn’t die” by Ramesh Fernandez, Founder of RISE, Ex-detainee and Refugee

People might think that coming to Australia by boat is a comfortable cruise.  Here’s the reality.

We risk our lives to cross borders to seek protection. Sometimes we succeed, sometime we don’t and we risk our lives again. Is this safe passage?

When we get on a boat we don’t know whether we will reach land or if we will be able to see our family members again. Boats float on the rough sea without sufficient water, limited food & no medical assistance. Diseases spread quickly; we don’t know how to swim. Dead bodies float around us as some people jump off the boats to their deaths.  Some boats capsize. Is this safe passage?

Would you risk your life like we did on a broken wooden boat, with no supplies, on a rough sea? I did, many of us did – many continue to do it.

I escaped from persecution and took a boat journey which lasted over 15 days; more than 10 years on I’m still not able to get on a boat or ship because of the trauma. Like me, many others have similar ongoing trauma.

I was young when I crossed the borders: I left my family, my identity, my belonging, for safe passage and freedom but it was not what I thought or imagined. I never imagined my “safe passage” would become the most horrific experience of my life, one that I continuously witness over and over.

I thought I might be alright on the boat, but I vomited every day for ten days. I bled, had diarrhoea and my skin become infected. I hid myself inside a cabin and thought that if I died my body might make it to shore because the cabin felt like a coffin.

One night I heard rough waves hit the deck of the boat.  It was like thunder.  I suddenly realised my arms were getting wet. I looked around and I realised there was a hole in the boat. I panicked and starting to cover the hole with clothes but the water kept coming, threatening to sink us. I was too scared to call unknown people for help but eventually I did and it took 10 days to remove all the water. People were dehydrated, the fresh water tank was damaged and mixed with the salt water – we would pinch our noses closed to drink it just to survive.

One by one we starting to lose faith. When night came, I never thought I would wake up the next day. Every time it rained, I kept my mouth open hoping to have some fresh water.  I noticed everyone doing the same except for one person who had chicken pox and couldn’t, so I took off my t-shirt, wet it, and collected some water in a cup for him.

After many sleep less nights, our bodies were spent.  People were crying and weeping thinking about our families and our community.  The captain apologised.  He said he couldn’t do any more – he was lost and the boat was too damaged to hold up for long.  Some of us began to cry and many were lost for words.  I knew I was going to die but I didn’t know how or when. I started shaking and screamed that I didn’t want to.

Someone started yelling “Island, island!”  We all ran to the deck and saw a glimpse of land. I dropped to my knees and started crying as we hugged each other.  My friend who had chicken the pox dragged himself out of his cabin and said “I’m not going to die.” We thought it was New Zealand or Indonesia but it turned out to be Cocos Island, Australia.

We all were detained for a number of years in Australian run detention centres both offshore and onshore for “illegally entering” Australian territory. I was in detention for three years. It’s a cycle of oppression in Australia: torture after torture.  If you are a boat person coming to Australia to seek protection, you’re not sure if you will be given protection but detention is guaranteed. When I was on the boat I never thought I would survive, but countless times while I was in detention I wondered why I didn’t die. Like me, many who came on boats are still damaged.

When we arrive on boats to seek protection, we are treated as criminals – detained indefinitely without providing us a way to see a liveable future. Especially in the West, immigration detention has been normalised and has been used to punish undesirable people of colour coming to their territory. One should remember some of these lands are in fact illegally occupied by the governments who ‘protect’ them.

What we are witnessing in the Mediterranean Sea is not something new, though it highlights that what we went through is happening all around the world.  Europe wants to find ‘solutions’ to combat ‘people smuggling’, prevent ‘deaths at sea’ and enact harsh policies against Refugees. People question why we flee as if the answers are not obvious: rape, torture, occupation, gender violence, homophobia, genocide and war. By taking a position against Refugees as the problem, governments pretend that these are not the real issues that need fixing.

Anti-refugee policies and detention centres are a global phenomenon.  Australia is a world leader in anti-refugee policies and other countries readily refer to Australia to implement laws that implement Nazi-style internment rather than anything resembling a  ‘humane’ refugee policy.

We will never stop seeking safety, be it the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, or the Mexican border.  No one wants to jump on a broken wooden boat unless we are completely forced to take that risk. When you are a displaced person, there is no such thing as a ‘proper way’ or ‘right way’ to travel.

We are not illegal.  We seek asylum from the illegal violence inflicted on us by governments and politicians. We are met with walls, borders and detention centres – more illegal violence by more governments.  But we will never stop, and we will never give up.

Note: I pay my respect to those Refugees crossing borders past and present including the ones alive and those who are not. And I pay my respects to the original owners of the lands in which we seek protection, who continue to live under discrimination and oppression, such as Australia.