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The Hopelessness Issue

What’s It Like Pulling Refugees Out of Australian Waters?

Australia has to deal with thousands of illegal immigrants sneaking through its borders each year. We spoke to a patrol-boat sailor to find out what it’s really like out there on the wild sea.
Κείμενο Royce Akers

As most of the world slides further into chaos and death, the countries that haven’t hit rock bottom will have to deal with increasing numbers of destitute immigrants. Even Australia, a giant island, has to deal with thousands of illegal immigrants sneaking through its borders each year. In 2012, the patrol boats of the Royal Australian Navy’s Operation Resolute intercepted more than 200 vessels carrying asylum seekers—mostly Hazaras escaping persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Tamils fleeing an unfriendly government in Sri Lanka.


With this number set to increase, Parliament is discussing new measures that include something they call “turnaround policy,” which I imagine involves waving guns around and telling boats to fuck off back to where they came from.

But for all the talk of borders in Australian politics, few of us have any idea of what it’s really like out there on the wild sea. To find out, we spoke to a patrol-boat sailor, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.

VICE: So what do you guys do out there while you’re floating in the water all day?
Mystery Sailor: Our overall mission is to conduct border-protection operations, as well as conduct foreign-fishing vessel (FFV) and suspected illegal-entry vessel (SIEV) boardings. These days we’re conducting more SIEV boardings than anything else. It keeps us busy.

How do these boardings go down?
Well, each one tests you in different ways. Sometimes you battle the elements, and other times you’re dealing with sick children or belligerent crewmembers. If you’re unlucky, you’ll find yourself pulling people out of the water. Sometimes those people will be deceased.

Have you had to do that?
It’s something that’s happened. And it stays with you.

How do you even go about locating these smuggling ships? 
The boats never follow a course directly to Australia. They sail toward places like Ashmore Island or Christmas Island. A voyage on a SIEV from somewhere like Sri Lanka or Indonesia is extremely dangerous, and chances are they won’t make it all the way. They want to be found as soon as possible, because they know the sooner they contact us the sooner they’ll be off the boat and safe.


This goes against the popularly held image of illegal immigrants washing up on our shores after falling out of boats. 
To think asylum seekers are trying to sneak into Australia is absurd. I doubt they’d know what to do if they ever made it to the mainland.

I’ve heard the rest of the Australian Navy has a nickname for what you do. 
Yeah, nicknames are everywhere in the Navy. Patrol-boat sailors have been called “taxi drivers” or “cabbies” before. We go out, pick them up, and take them to an immigration facility.

What’s your read on how the public views you and your colleagues?
I often get asked, “Why don’t you just shoot them?” Someone said that to me once and it actually started a fight. You get so angry hearing that because you start to realize people think of asylum seekers as enemies of the state.

What happens to the boats after they’re evacuated?
They’re sprayed with accelerant and set on fire.

Bring a box of tissues and read more from our Hopelessness Issue:

The Secret Drinker’s Handbook

Don’t Get Caught

The Right to Die Is the Right to Live