July 18, 2013
Where most of us see a poisonous political debate, with fact and fiction being screamed back and forth, Lieutenant-Commander Barry Learoyd has seen only human beings.
As the Rudd government prepares to release its pre-election asylum-seeker policy, widely expected to be a substantial toughening of the existing approach, Commander Learoyd has this observation: We should have more compassion for asylum seekers and more admiration for the navy sailors who rescue them.
It’s a perspective the burly, tattooed and just-retired navy officer has gained from years out on the seas to Australia’s north, intercepting 12 asylum-seeker vessels.
In the most traumatic episode, he was commanding officer of a patrol boat crew when it encountered the SIEV 36, which exploded at sea on April 16, 2009, killing five asylum seekers and badly burning many.
”People are making up their own minds based on what the media is putting out,” he said. ”If they could see the conditions these people are arriving in, they may have a change of heart. They are people trying, as we all do, to make a better life for themselves.”
The 59-year-old retired on Monday after 40 years in the navy, freeing him up to speak to the media from his hometown of Perth.
He says he’s still ”too navy-ised” to offer a view on the political debate. But of Border Protection Minister Jason Clare’s remark that the issue has become ”poisoned by politics”, he says cautiously: ”It’s a statement that is probably going to ring true in a number of circles.”
What he wants most is for people to understand the ”risks to life and limb that our navy go through on a daily basis”.
He has seen it often enough, in one case a sailor falling into the sea between an asylum-seeker boat and a boarding vessel.
His crews have seen things that will haunt them forever, he says.
The worst by far was SIEV 36, after asylum seekers ignited a fuel spill under the mistaken belief that they were to be taken back to Indonesia. The boat blew up. Commander Learoyd says his crew was particularly young – and some struggled to cope emotionally afterwards. ”I saw a 19-year-old sailor bring a dead body back over his lap in the sea boat. He’s got to deal with that,” he said.
”A lot of my crew were pulling people out of the water … they were initially grabbing them by their arms and all the skin was coming away in their hands. They had to start grabbing them by the back of the trousers or the belt and pulling them in that way.”
The navy is stretched with the spike in boat arrivals, he says. But they are professional and they’ll do what the government of the day demands of them, including turning back boats safely if that’s required.