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How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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The Bali tragedy and the SIEVX tragedy: Tony Kevin

15 October 2002

This website has kindly given me homepage space for some reflections to try to relate our nation's huge present grief over the still unfolding tragedy in Bali, and the coming anniversary on Saturday 19 October 2002 of the SIEVX tragedy a year ago.

This is a hugely difficult subject to tackle, but it must be done, because both these terrible disasters are major Australian public events as well as private griefs. Now more than ever, the tragedy of SIEVX cannot be brushed aside, as it was a year ago. The terrorist attack in Bali that has killed and wounded so many young Australians re-emphasises the importance of the work many of us are doing, to try to have the SIEVX tragedy properly recognised and addressed by our nation.

Both tragedies are fundamentally about the safety of travellers. People who travel have the same right to life: whether they are travelling for holiday, or to seek refuge from cruel persecution. Just as it was the Indonesian Government's duty to try to safeguard the lives of Australian holiday-makers visiting their land, it was the duty of Australian authorities to try to safeguard the lives of asylum-seekers entering our marine border protection zone: a duty which our Prime Minister himself acknowledged at the time he announced Operation Relex in September 2001.

Both tragedies involve the deaths of innocent people, and the deaths of many young people: people who were going about their business peacefully, and not offering a threat to anyone else. The people who tried to come to Australia to seek to be granted refuge here under the UN Convention chose Australia as their destination because they believed it was a decent and compassionate country. They had, and have, no intention to harm us in any way; any more than did the young victims in Bali have any intention to harm anybody in Indonesia. This is what makes both events equally cruel and horrifying.

Third, the sad congruence of the SIEVX anniversary with this latest act of savagery against innocent people reminds us that no political cause or deterrent objective can justify the use of barbaric methods, in any part of the world, against any group of people. We need to recognise that all acts of cruelty and murder, wherever they take place and for whatever reason, are wrong, if we are to honour our vision of Australia as a compassionate and liberal society . Our own government authorities' actions in respect of the tragedy of SIEVX need to be judged by the same moral compass that the Prime Minister now applies to the Bali tragedy when he says:

'The indiscriminate, brutal and despicable way in which lives have been taken away on this occasion by an act of barbarity will deeply shock all Australians'.

The Bali tragedy does shock us all, and it seems clear already that it resulted from an indiscriminate act of terrorism. The SIEVX tragedy shocked many of us a year ago, but we were reassured then that it had nothing to do with us. We know now from evidence presented in the Senate Committee that this claim was almost certainly not true. We know now that the sinking of SIEVX and the Australian authorities' failure to search for its victims raise many serious questions. There are still no answers to the questions Senator Faulkner posed in the Senate in September about Australia's people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia, which may have indirectly contributed to the sinking of SIEVX . The human tragedy in Bali makes it even more important and urgent to find out what really happened to SIEVX, and if any are guilty of negligence or wrongdoing, to bring their actions to account. Neither our moral outrage nor our yearning for justice can be selective, if we are to be true to ourselves.

We are still seeking to convey the public message - and this is perhaps our greatest challenge - that SIEVX was a major Australian tragedy. It was not a faraway foreign event.

SIEVX sank in the heart of Australia's largest-ever border protection operation, which was being conducted in international waters north of Australia's Christmas Island. It did not, as we were being assured at the time, sink in Indonesian waters: that lie was sustained for almost a year, and it still has not been formally corrected.

Even more importantly: this is not just about geography, about two massively tragic losses of life that happened on our doorstep. These terrible griefs struck at hundreds of people who live in our country. A year ago, hundreds of family members and friends in Australia were in grief for their cherished loved ones who drowned on SIEVX. They were grieving privately and publicly, in their homes and in their places of worship, as so many people will be grieving in weeks ahead. Did we acknowledge those griefs a year ago? Did we try, however imperfectly, to share the pain as our own pain ? Or did we take refuge in the comforting official lie: 'It sank in Indonesian waters, it wasn't our responsibility'.

A table "Our Worst Disasters" on page 56 of the Australian Financial Review on 14 October lists our eight largest peacetime disasters since 1964 as follows: the "Voyager" disaster ( 82 deaths), the West Gate Bridge collapse (35), the Granville train crash (83), the Ash Wednesday bushfires (76), the Kempsey bus crash (35), the Port Arthur massacres (35), the Thredbo landslide (19), the Swiss canyoning disaster (13), and the World Trade Center attacks (10).

Disasters are not to be measured by numbers killed. Every single human death is an encompassing grief in its own right. But still it ought not be overlooked that 353 people died on SIEVX, that they were mostly women and children, and that it was an Australian public disaster. We will know that we have done our work when the sinking of SIEVX in Australia's border protection zone takes its proper place in such lists.

Finally, when one reviews the list of those eight major peacetime disasters, one other important thing becomes very clear. Each was followed - as the Bali tragedy is already being followed - by a determined police or coronial or judicial investigation, to try to establish full accountability and to learn lessons from the disaster so that it might not be repeated. In the same way, we press for a full judicial enquiry into SIEVX, and for Australian government authorities to offer their full cooperation to that enquiry - cooperation which has not been forthcoming to date. That same rightful demand for a judicial enquiry has been made by many responsible Senators and by leading newspaper editorials. For they understand, as we do, that if our nation says that there is nothing more to be asked or said about SIEVX, how can we expect anyone else to help us if a disaster like Bali strikes?

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