Monday, 01 May 2017  
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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GOVERNMENT
Drowned asylum seekers still wait for justice: Kevin

25 October 2002

Tony Kevin, writing in today's Age, claims that the truth has not yet been told about SIEVX:

On Wednesday the Report of the Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident was tabled in the Senate. There were two main issues: the misrepresented "children overboard" photographs of a RAN sea rescue on October 8, and the SIEVX (suspected illegal entry vessel) that sank 60 nautical miles south of Java on October 19, 2001, drowning 353 people, mostly women and children, and leaving only 44 survivors.

Wednesday was the anniversary of this huge tragedy becoming public. On that day, Prime Minister John Howard was at pains to reassure radio listeners throughout Australia that the boat sank in Indonesian waters and that it was not Australia's responsibility.

Labor Senate leader John Faulkner usefully reminded us on Wednesday that this claim was patently false. Howard was undoubtedly aware on October 23, 2001, of two intelligence reports in Canberra on that day. The inter-agency People Smuggling Taskforce in the Prime Minister's Department reported that SIEVX was "likely to have been in international waters south of Java" when it sank; we learnt this on June 6. Then we found out one month ago of a second intelligence report on October 23 from the Immigration Department to Philip Ruddock, that "the boat sank approximately 60 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait", i.e. in international waters and indisputably in Australia's operational border protection zone.

Throughout April, May and June, the committee was fed a confusing diet of misrepresentations, false stories and gaps in testimony, to try to persuade it that Howard's statements were true or might have been true. Why was the system so keen to bolster retrospectively his false claim that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters? Because this claim was fundamental to the defence that Australia had nothing to answer for.

Two other issues were in focus. First, the Australian Government's people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia. This secret program was being conducted mainly by the Australian Federal Police, under ministerial direction. It involved cultivating working associations with criminal elements and with uncontrolled units of the Indonesian police, both of which had a record of active entrapment of asylum seekers in phoney "sting" voyages and of active sabotage and even sinking of asylum-seeker boats.

Faulkner signalled that Labor would pursue a range of serious questions about the AFP disruption program in Indonesia, and its possible relationship to the sabotage of SIEVX.

Second, the failure of the Australian Defence Force's border protection exercise (Operation Relex) to carry out an effective safety-of-life-at-sea aerial search for SIEVX. Despite all Australia's sophisticated surveillance technologies, SIEVX was never seen or found. Here, the report seems too gentle on the ADF, taking at face value the many flip-flops and deliberate sowings of uncertainty in senior officials' testimony.

But again, Labor senator Brian Cook's strong complaint as chairman about information blockages and his call for a full judicial inquiry stand out in the recommendations and in his speech. As he said, "the executive wing of government had used its power to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of itself".

Senator Jacinta Collins bravely focused on the lack of compassion, and of any respect for the dignity and safety of life at sea of asylum seekers, inherent in the operating culture of border protection. She attributed most of the blame to the Prime Minister, recalling as a telling example how he had ordered Commander Banks to keep more than 200 people from the sinking SIEV 4 in the water for nearly an hour on October 8, 2001, before allowing them to be brought on board HMAS Adelaide.

Liberal senators, in their unworthy renewed demonisation of asylum seekers in the debate on Wednesday, without any basis in committee evidence, amply demonstrated her point about how a punitive anti-asylum-seeker culture has taken hold in the ADF and Australian Government.

Faulkner neatly thanked Senator Brandis for widening the agenda to include encounters with all SIEV boats, which he called "one of the greatest own goals in Australian politics", allowing the previously secret program of aggressive border protection to become public. I was disappointed that discussion of the falsified photographs - when no lives were lost, and which is by now a pretty open-and-shut issue - occupied so much more of Labor's precious speaking time than discussion of the major SIEVX tragedy when 353 lives were lost on Australia's watch. The enormity of this horror still does not seem to have got through fully to any of our politicians, even the decent ones.

Senator Brandis crowed how pleased his side was with the majority conclusion on SIEVX that the ADF was not at fault. In time, I suspect that this interim committee verdict, taken by a jaded and exhausted committee on the basis of incomplete and misleading testimony, will be greatly modified. But that will require more evidence coming to light, and a disposition to look more critically than does the written report at the evidence already submitted. Fortunately, future historians will have the 2000-odd pages of raw committee Hansard and documents on which to base more considered judgments.

The morally confronting SIEVX issue will not go away until it is dealt with in a fully transparent and accountable way. One day, probably not under the present PM, this will happen. The majority report, with its emphasis on the need for an independent inquiry into all aspects of SIEVX, is a step in the right direction. But there is still a long way to go before real justice is done to the victims of SIEVX - one of Australia's most shameful human disasters.

 

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