Christmas Island Malay Muslims’ sympathy for refugees fades

Imam Abdul Ghaffar at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. Picture: Toby Zerna

LOOKING out across Christmas Island’s Flying Fish Cove, where 69 more asylum seekers arrived on two boats yesterday, Imam Abdul Ghaffar says that sympathy for the new arrivals was dwindling within his community.
He said the surge in asylum seekers, particularly the sight of babies and children on boats, made the island’s Malay Muslim population sceptical of their legitimacy.

“When the boats started coming we were seeing them as seeking help and we wanted to help as fellow Muslims,” Imam Ghaffar said from his mosque opposite the cove. “Then the boats kept coming and coming and people started talking different things.”

The mosque welcomes detained Muslim asylum seekers to prayers on Friday but Iranians are no longer allowed after complaints they were disruptive and disrespectful.

Imam Ghaffar said Malay Muslims, who number about 300 on the island, began to question whether the new arrivals were genuine or merely seeking a better life for economic reasons. And he said his community was deeply troubled by the increasing number of asylum seekers losing their lives at sea.

Earlier this week, a prayer service was held at the mosque to honour the asylum seekers who last month died in two boat sinkings less than a week apart.

“We pray for them and hope they’re resting in peace and for their families in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said.

The 18 bodies recovered from the two capsizings remain in refrigerated shipping containers on the island and Imam Ghaffar said Muslims were uneasy about this, because Islam demanded bodies be buried as soon as possible.
Arrangements are being made to transport them to Perth but that is still about two weeks away.

In the one month to yesterday, 24 asylum seeker boats have arrived at Christmas Island carrying a total of 1695 passengers.

Yesterday 38 Iraqi men and four Indonesian crew were brought to shore at Flying Fish Cove.

They had spent a week at sea on board Customs vessel the ACV Triton after their asylum boat was intercepted at Ashmore reef.

On Thursday, 162 Middle Eastern asylum seekers arrived after refusing to return to Indonesia after they rang Australian authorities saying they were in distress.

A number of the asylum seekers from the boat appeared ill, with one woman needing a wheelchair.

She was later flown to Perth for medical treatment via the Royal Flying Doctor Service, along with another two asylum seekers from boats which arrived last week.

And late yesterday another boat carrying 31 suspected Sri Lankan asylum seekers was spotted west of Christmas Island.


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