Editorial: The tragic tale of the SIEV-X
25 June 2002

The children-overboard claims that several Howard Government ministers made so freely during last year's federal election campaign are now known to have been false, although the ministers concerned deny any deliberate deception. They blame inadequate or misleading advice by their departments for their statements that asylum seekers on an Indonesian vessel had thrown their children into the sea in an attempt to force the navy to take them to Australia. Now another horror story about asylum seekers during the election campaign has begun to emerge, but this time it is about something that did happen: 353 people died when the overcrowded boat on which they were travelling sank on its way to Australia from Indonesia. Once again, however, how much Australian authorities knew about the incident is a matter of controversy.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says that when the boat, known as Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) X, sank it was in Indonesian waters so rescue would have been an Indonesian responsibility. But evidence given to a Senate inquiry says the boat was in international waters, and the government's claims about the location of the SIEV-X are not the only ones to have been controverted. Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith, the officer in charge of naval interception of asylum seekers, at first told the Senate inquiry that the Australian Defence Force knew nothing of the SIEV-X until October 23, after it had sunk. But Rear Admiral Smith later "clarified" this claim, conceding that Coastwatch had told the Defence Force about the overcrowded boat. And the head of Coastwatch, Rear Admiral Mark Bonser, has said that on October 20 he sent the Defence Force a report from an Australian Federal Police officer in Indonesia who believed the SIEV-X was in grave danger of sinking. Finally, the minutes of the government's people-smuggling taskforce indicate that by October 18 - the day before the SIEV-X sank - the taskforce, too, was aware of the boat and of the danger to its passengers. None of this proves that if the Defence Force had tried to intercept the SIEV-X, or even to search for its survivors sooner, more than the 44 who were eventually rescued from the sea would have been saved. But enough is known to suggest that the effort could have been made. Australia has an obligation to help save those in peril when it can, and if the government is to excuse itself and the Defence Force of responsibility in this case it must appeal to more than lines drawn in the water

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