Accessibility links

Shipwreck Orphan to Return Temporarily to Australian Detention

  • Phil Mercer

The family of a boy orphaned in a shipwreck last year has pleaded with the Australian government not to send him back to immigration detention. Immigration officials say the child must go back, but promise to bring him to Sydney to live with relatives while his refugee claims are processed.

Seena, 9, saw his Iranian parents drown when their wooden Indonesian fishing boat smashed into rocks on Christmas Island in December.

Up to 50 asylum seekers died. Most of the survivors, including Seena, have been detained on Christmas Island. The government runs a large detention center on the island for migrants who try to enter Australia without proper documentation.

This week the first of the shipwreck victims were buried in Sydney. Detainees who are relatives of the dead were flown in to attend the services.

They are now being returned to detention, Seena among them. His relatives and their lawyers have pleaded with Australian authorities not to send him back to Christmas Island at such a traumatic time.

The government rejected the request for now, but says he will soon be allowed to live in Sydney with other members of his family.

Australia's Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says that procedures must be followed.

"It has been explained to all the people who came to Sydney, they were being brought to Sydney for the funeral," said Bowen. "Matters of their release into the community are quite separate. They are being dealt with expeditiously and urgently, but they are separate to coming to Sydney for the funeral. I want to see him in the community as much as everybody else, but I need to be reassured that the appropriate psychological care is in place."

Seena could be released from detention as early as next week.

The death of his parents and the other asylum seekers has refocused the debate in Australia about immigration.

The Labor government wants to stem a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat. But a proposal to set up a refugee transit camp in neighboring East Timor has stalled, while critics accuse the government of losing control of Australia's maritime borders.

Australia has been shaped by successive waves of migrants but the issue of migrants arriving by boat has been divisive.

Some Australians view them as "queue jumpers," who are denying other refugees the chance of a new life in the country, while others see them as desperate people willing to risk their lives to flee persecution in countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most asylum seekers who arrive illegally are detained while their claims for refugee status are assessed.

Canberra grants visas to about 13,000 refugees under various international programs each year.