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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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MEDIA

GOVERNMENT
Government Still Maintains SIEVX Sinking Position 'Unknown'

by Marg Hutton
19 September 2005

Update: Since this article was published I have received a response from Senator Hill.

In June this year, soon after the trial of convicted people smuggler Khaleed Daoed concluded, two Government Ministers (Senators Ellison and Vanstone) independently released statements that included reference to SIEVX having sunk in 'international waters'. These statements were at odds with the Defence Internal Review of Intelligence pertaining to SIEVX provided to the CMI Committee and with the findings of the CMI Report (see paras 8.5 & 8.144). They also contradicted John Howard's oft repeated refrain throughout the 2001 Federal election campaign that the boat had sunk in 'indonesian waters' (see p.2 & endnote #8).

This seeming about face by Ellison and Vanstone caused some commentators (1, 2, 3) to conclude that the Government had officially changed its line on this issue. However, this is not the case.

In late June, I wrote to Ministers Vanstone, Ellison and Hill seeking clarification concerning the Government position on the sinking location of SIEVX. I have yet to receive a response from Ellison or Hill, but last Friday I received a response from Vanstone's office. Yole Daniels, Assistant Secretary of the Compliance and Analysis branch of the Department, wrote:

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has not conducted any investigation into the position where the SIEV X sank. DIMIA has reviewed the original source of the information relied upon in our reporting at the time. This information reflected Coastwatch advice that the vessel was believed to have sunk in international waters. However, this advice is inconsistent with information from the other agencies who stated that the vessel sank in an unknown location. This finding was endorsed by the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident in October 2002.

Accordingly, our advice to Senator Vanstone has been changed to reflect the Senate Select Committee finding that the location where the vessel known as SIEV X sank is unknown.

Minister Vanstone also updated Hansard with a revised answer to the Question on Notice removing the original reference to the sinking having occurred in 'international waters', claiming instead that the tragedy occurred at an 'unknown location'. (Incidentally this is the not the first time that Hansard has been revised in regard to the sinking position of SIEVX. See here for example...)

Of course, technically speaking the Government is correct to maintain that the sinking location is unknown - that is, we do not know with any precision the exact location (ie degrees and minutes) where SIEVX foundered. However, we do know the general area where the boat sank and there is little doubt that this falls within international waters and inside Australia's Operation Relex aerial surveillance zone.

I have previously written about how and why the CMI Committee was able to reach the false conclusion that the sinking position of SIEVX was unknowable (see pp.18-21). Now it is apparent that the Government is using the false findings of the CMI Committee concerning the sinking location to perpetuate this myth.

So where did SIEVX sink?

The large white square marked 'T' on the map below depicts the probable area where SIEVX foundered at 3.10pm on 19 October 2001. (Click on map for clearer copy).

Map depicting the sinking position of SIEVX

In December 2002, Matthias Tomczak, Professor of Oceanography at Flinders University assessed how far the SIEVX survivors would have drifted in the South Java Current before they were rescued.

The map above was produced by applying Professor Tomczak's assessment to the rescue coordinates detailed in the Jakarta Harbourmaster's Report (JHR) based on an average rescue time of 10am on 20 October. It was decided to use 10am as the time of rescue in drawing up the map, as it is the mean point between 8am and midday (the range of time in which survivors were reportedly rescued) and so would minimise any errors in the drift computation. The map was drawn using a template of one of the RAAF surveillance maps that were submitted to the CMI Committee in evidence as part of the Defence Review of Intelligence pertaining to SIEVX.

The authority and provenance of the Jakarta Harbourmaster's report has long been challenged by the government - particularly the Defence Department. However, there is other data within the RAAF surveillance maps that supports the sinking position derived from JHR. This triangulation suggests that JHR is indeed accurate.

As stated earlier, the large white square marked 'T' on the map above represents the probable area in which the boat foundered.

The smaller pink square represents the probable area the survivors had drifted to, four hours after the sinking (ie 7.10pm) twenty minutes before the evening P3 surveillance flight noted a radar contact in the NW quadrant of the surveillance zone (see contact marked 1930 on RAAF map A-8).

I plotted on my map, two unidentified radar contacts from the RAAF surveillance maps of 19 October (maps A6 & A8) - one from the morning flight (0919) and the other from the evening flight (1930). The purpose of including these radar contacts was to demonstrate that there existed within the RAAF maps data that supported the probable sinking area (ie the white square marked on my map).

If SIEVX sank somewhere in the area of the white box depicted on the map, then it follows that the boat must have been in a position to reach that area when the P3 flew over the zone earlier that morning (ie approximately six hours before the sinking). That is, if SIEVX sank in the area of the white box, then, assuming a speed of approximately 4nm, it must have been within 24nm of that area when the P3 flew over in the morning and so may have appeared on the morning surveillance map as a radar contact, or as a spotted boat, depending on how far into the white box it actually sank.

Assuming that the RAAF map of the morning flight of 19 October is an accurate depiction of all the boats spotted and radar contacts made, then it is apparent that the only possible candidate for SIEVX appearing on this map is the radar contact at 0919 (see map A6). It is the only boat/radar contact depicted on this map that could possibly reach the white square by 3.10pm.

The radar contact found at 1930 on the evening flight on the night of the sinking was the only contact of any kind found in the NW quadrant. (See map A8) According to Byrne, who was aboard the evening P3 surveillance flight and who testified at the CMI Committee, the radar contact at 1930 was made at such a range and in such poor weather that it could be 'nothing less than a boat' - that is it could not be the wreckage of SIEVX (see CMI 2172 ).

There is something particularly striking about this radar contact - it is very close to the NW corner of the pink square - the area in which the survivors had likely drifted to in the four hours after the sinking. (I estimate this radar contact to be within 3nm of the corner of the pink square at 7.30pm)

The SIEVX survivors have consistently claimed that there was a ship or ships in their vicinity on the evening that their boat sank. This radar contact at 1930 fits with this information and what is more, it also fits with the 0919 contact from the morning flight. If 0919 is SIEVX then it appears that it would not have travelled very far into the area depicted by the white square by 3.10pm, the time of the sinking. Similarly, 4 hours after the sinking, if the boat had sunk close to the edge of the white square, then you would expect that the survivors would have drifted to a similar position within the pink square, four hours later, which would put them close to the 1930 radar contact.

It is also worth noting that the ship or boat seen at 1930 could have moved closer to the survivors - the point plotted on the surveillance map is not necessarily the closest point that that boat/ship came to the area represented by the pink square that evening. ( I should also make it clear that I am not claiming that the vessel/s represented by the 1930 contact saw the survivors struggling in the water and refused to rescue them. In my opinion that is only one of several possibilities. Although the survivors are adamant that they saw a ship or ships close to them that night, we cannot be sure that the vessel/s saw them. The survivors would have been very small in the water and they were in the middle of a storm in the Indian Ocean at night... )

So it is apparent that there is data within the Government's own surveillance maps that supports the sinking location derived from the Jakarta Harbourmaster's report. We know where the SIEVX survivors were rescued. An expert in Oceanography has assessed how far they drifted from the sinking site during the hours they were in the water. The map above is based on this data and is the best information we have on the probable sinking location.

When is the government going to come clean and admit that SIEVX sank in international waters inside our border protection surveillance zone?

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