Boatpeople Tragedy Must Be Explained
3 July 2002
IT is difficult to overstate the human tragedy of the drowning of 353 asylum-seekers, many of them women and children, when their impossibly overcrowded boat sank en route to Christmas Island from Indonesia. Australians will long remember the family photograph of the three little sisters, Eman, Zhra and Fatimah, who died last October, leaving behind their grieving mother, Sondos Ismail, and father, Ahmed al-Zalime.
At the time, in the heat of an election campaign fought on the issue of border protection, John Howard was adamant: there was nothing Australia could have done. The boat went down in Indonesian waters and was therefore outside our zone of surveillance, rescue or responsibility. The navy said it hadn't even heard of the vessel's existence until CNN reported its sinking.
Now, eight months after the disaster, a very different story is emerging of what the Government, the Australian Defence Force and rescue services knew about the leaky boat, dubbed Siev X, and what they did or didn't do about it. As the Senate has inquired into the separate children overboard incident, we have also learned that military commanders did in fact know a fair amount about Siev X from intelligence reports; including the fact that it had most likely left Indonesia, how many people were on it and that it was not seaworthy.
Yet the navy never diverged from its routine surveillance to look for the crowded boat. As The Australian reports today, there was a window of 24 hours between when Australian authorities had concluded that a boat carrying almost 400 asylum-seekers was overdue, and when they sent a patrol plane over the area. Even then, this was only a routine flight. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, who was so certain the boat perished in Indonesian territorial waters, now claims no one knows where it sank.
But his story changed only after the release of the minutes of his departmental people-smuggling taskforce showing it had received intelligence it was likely that the vessel sank in international waters. The ADF is sensitive to any suggestion that it may have been indifferent towards desperate, drowning asylum-seekers. And there is no evidence that Australian authorities wilfully turned a blind eye to the fate of Siev X. But it is unsatisfactory that this story has trickled out in dribs and drabs, with defence officials contradicting themselves and Coastwatch, and the Government backtracking on its original claims.
We need a definitive explanation. Mr Howard, who shifted blame for the children overboard affair to the navy in the final week of the election campaign, is now defending it against what he terms the "outrageous" accusations peddled by sections of the media. However, the suggestion is not that the navy is morally culpable for the deaths of hundreds of asylum-seekers. The question is simply being asked: did it make a dubious judgment?
The Prime Minister could begin by explaining why his account changed. Jane Halton, the bureaucrat who headed his people-smuggling taskforce, should be recalled to explain why her PM did not receive its assessment that Siev X was likely to have sunk in international waters. More importantly, we need to know why the ADF stuck to its decision not to increase its routine daily surveillance, even after it had had received specific intelligence that Siev X had set sail and was dangerously overcrowded.
There is no evidence that the navy, or the ADF generally, was placed under "intense political pressure to avert their eyes". But this doesn't mean there isn't scope to inquire into whether the ADF was unresponsive to intelligence reports and made a bad judgment. We must also ask whether it had a duty of care to do more. Of course, the responsibility for the deaths of these people lies with Indonesian people-smugglers who sent them out on a small, leaky boat. But given this calamitous situation, if the boat did come into our zone of surveillance, could we have done more than what we did?
We need to know a lot more.