BBC Correspondent:
Australia's Pacific Solution
29 September 2002

[Click here to read the feedback on the BBC site about this program and to write to the BBC encouraging them to produce a follow up program on the SIEVX tragedy.]

[This script was made from audio tape - any inaccuracies are due to voices being unclear or inaudible]

SARAH MACDONALD: In August last year, four hundred and thirty-eight Afghan asylum seekers set out from Indonesia in a fishing boat.

VOICE OVER: They said, you sit in the boat and in thirty-two hours you will be in one of the islands of Australia. Then you ask for asylum and the Government will give you asylum and will take you to Sydney.

VOICE OVER: The children and women were crying. There was no light; just darkness and we were surrounded by water.

SARAH MACDONALD: After twenty-four hours, the motor stopped. Water began to come through the cracks.

VOICE OVER: On the fourth day we saw a boat and we saw all the people up there on the deck and we waved to them and if they were not coming to help us we would drown. It was the last moment.

SARAH MACDONALD: They were saved by the Norwegian cargo ship, The Tampa. The captain radioed Australia for help.

ARNE RINNAN (Captain, MV Tampa): The Australian Government told me a lot of things; that they will supply medical assistance but nothing showed up and the situation onboard was getting worser and worser.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Tampa sat in international waters while Australia's leader, fighting re-election at home, argued with Indonesia.

JOHN HOWARD (Australian Prime Minister): We will defend our borders and we will decide who comes to this country. But we'll do that within the framework of the decency to which Australians have always been renowned.

SARAH MACDONALD: After three days some people were unconscious, a pregnant woman was in pain. Desperate for medical help, the Tampa defied Australia and sailed into her waters off Christmas Island.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australia's SAS responded by storming the ship. It was the beginning of what was to be called the Pacific Solution.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australia was not going to take The Tampa asylum seekers. The Pacific Solution was a deal, which effectively sold them to the tiny near- bankrupt island of Nauru, two and a half thousand miles from Christmas Island.

SARAH MACDONALD: In return for a down payment of thirty million dollars.

SARAH MACDONALD: By early September, a naval warship was anchored off Nauru. Onboard were the four hundred Tampa Afghan asylum seekers and two hundred Iraqi boat people who'd fled Saddam, only to sail into the political storm.

SARAH MACDONALD: They'd refused to get off the Australian warship. The stand- off lasted twenty-four days. In the end the Navy forced them off.

JOURNALIST: Have you been forced off the ship?

ASYLUM SEEKER 1: We are hostage. They took us by force

ASYLUM SEEKER 2: (Subtitle) We have been forced off.

JOURNALIST: What did they do to you?

ASYLUM SEEKER: (Subtitles) Look, look! This is against my human rights!

POLICEMAN: Get back. Back.

JOURNALIST: I'm back. Let go. Let go.

SARAH MACDONALD: The asylum seekers were bussed to hastily built detention centres run by the International Organisation for Migration - IOM.

SARAH MACDONALD: It claims to be committed to 'upholding the human dignity of migrants'.

SARAH MACDONALD: Its head on Nauru is Cy Winter.

CY WINTER: Pardon me.

JOURNALIST: Well the asylum seekers have obviously been brought ashore forcefully; does the IOM condone that sort of behaviour?

CY WINTER: International Organisation for Migration Well we just got here so we we're not sure what's happening.

JOURNALIST: - of this operation

CY WINTER: Well not about the force.

SARAH MACDONALD: The asylum seekers were taken to one of two secure camps in the centre of the island. Then they refused to leave the bus.

ASYLUM SEEKER: They hit us and they give nothing to us, not to eat, not to sleep. We are under arrest since one month.

SARAH MACDONALD: They've been told they'll be on Nauru a few weeks while their claims for refugee status are determined by the UNHCR for the Tampa asylum seekers and Australian immigration for the rest.

SIMON RICE (Australian Lawyers for Human Rights): They're there by virtue of an arrangement between the two Governments. There's no practical limit on how long the two Governments could continue to have an arrangement. It sounds bizarre that one Government could pay another to keep citizens of a third country detained without any limit, but that's the situation at the moment.

SARAH MACDONALD: The asylum seekers have been refused access to Australian lawyers who could help them with their claims for refugee status. Only Amnesty International was granted a visit and then the island was closed to the outside world.

JOHN PACE: (Author of Amnesty International report): It was hellish. It was hellish in many respects not necessarily in the sense of physical torture of the classic type that we read about in some instances but more than anything else in the psychological trauma.

JOHN PACE:: There were a hundred and twenty-nine children in that group, ranging from a few weeks old to early teens, thirteen, fourteen. They were basically held at these so- called camps were really detention centre with the usual thing of wire fences and guards and they were not allowed to circulate certainly. During my time they were not allowed out, you were not allowed to bring any gifts to them for instance. No contact anyway.

SARAH MACDONALD: It was the end of the Tampa asylum seekers' journey. The Australian warship sailed away, leaving them behind on a small barren island in the middle of the Pacific.

KATE DURHAM: Some people, not entirely jokingly will tell you these people should go back home or drown. And I've never seen the like of that in Australia.

KATE DURHAM: If you told me a year or so ago that that was going to happen, I wouldn't have believed it.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Tampa crisis unfolded with a ferocity that pitched Australian against Australian. Kate Durham, a Melbourne artist, believed the Government's response was Australia's shame.

KATE DURHAM: I didn't know much about refugees, I had a vague awareness that we were doing the wrong thing by them and when a man set fire to himself in Canberra, I think it was, and Mr Ruddock's reaction was, well this man's just being manipulative, I started to think that there's something seriously wrong.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate Durham abandoned her work as an artist and began corresponding with the Tampa asylum seekers on Nauru - one in particular.

KATE DURHAM:I initially tried to sponsor Mohammad Mehdi from Nauru to Australia. Of course it wasn't going to work. I was aware that it wouldn't work but it did allow me to have a bit more access to this person, I had, it seemed, more justification for meddling, writing letters, getting messages in and out.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate has been refused permission to visit Mohammad Mehdi, asylum seeker number one hundred and five, held on Nauru for three hundred and eighty-five days. So she decided to make an unofficial visit and I would go with her.

SARAH MACDONALD: Since journalists are unwelcome on Nauru, we pose as concerned Melbourne housewives and fly via Fiji.

KATE DURHAM: If they don't let me in I will feel like a flop and I'm no good at espionage but I knew that anyway.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Republic of Nauru was once one of the richest nations in the world. Its eleven thousand inhabitants made wealthy by selling the island's prized phosphate to Britain, Australia and New Zealand. But now the phosphate's run out and Nauru's in serious debt, especially to Australia.

PILOT: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Nauru. The local time is one o'clock.

SARAH MACDONALD: This is the point when Kate and I could be arrested and held until the next plane arrives in three days.

SARAH MACDONALD: But we are let into the country. Our next hurdle is to be let into the camps.

KATE DURHAM: I think when the detainees see us the guards won't be able to keep us out. It's as simple as that.

SARAH MACDONALD: We head off into the middle of the island where there's nothing but coral pinnacles, stripped of the soil and phosphate that once submerged them. No food can be grown. Everything must be shipped in and it is a consistent forty degree heat. From here we get our first glimpse of Topside Camp.

SARAH MACDONALD: The asylum seekers are behind this fence.

KATE DURHAM: There are a number of people I've got actual cash for. I've got letters from their husbands.

SARAH MACDONALD: Over the roar of the generator, Kate tells them she is bearing gifts for the children.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australian Chubb Security, employed to keep the asylum seekers inside and in line, are not going to let us in. They take our names and order us outside the gate.

SARAH MACDONALD: We're forced to retreat to the Australian Federal Police who guard the outer ring of the camp.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate's nervous about what's going to happen to us.

SARAH MACDONALD: They take us down to meet the Head of the IOM, Cy Winter, he runs the camps, is the main man and cannot believe that these two women have just appeared from nowhere asking for access to the asylum seekers.

CY WINTER: (Subtitles) Go into Social Services and tell them who you want to see.

SARAH MACDONALD: Cy Winter gives the OK for us to see Mohammad Mehdi.

KATE DURHAM: That's great. Thank you very much.

SARAH MACDONALD: And a moment later we're back at the camp. Kate finally meets the man she's been writing to all these months - Mohammad Mehdi.

KATE DURHAM: This is very important that you read this book. It's about, it's about you.

SARAH MACDONALD: They plead with us to get them off the island.

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: (Subtitles) We have many difficulties, problems here - and we would like the Australian public to be aware of our situation here.

SARAH MACDONALD: One of the few to speak English, twenty-two year old Afghani Mohammad Mehdi, became an unofficial spokesman for the Tampa boat people. It's not a good position to be in. Australian immigration has said it will take punitive measures against any asylum seeker who speaks out against ill treatment.

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: (Subtitles) They have been put in solitary confinement for weeks - and they have not been told why exactly they have been put in solitary confinement. When we were on board the Tampa, we were told that if we came to Nauru - we would be free, we would not be detained. But since we came here, we have been very strictly detained. Anyone who is offending, who is getting out of the camp - is treated as criminals.

SARAH MACDONALD: I'm scared of being caught with the camera at any minute.

SARAH MACDONALD: Inside the camp we hear whispers of trouble. Contrary to Australian Government claims that everything is harmonious, there has in fact been a riot; sparked by the majority of Afghani's having their claims for asylum rejected.

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: (Subtitles) They were treated very aggressively, violently and they pushed people forcefully - tried to push them inside the camps, and they used their sticks. As a result of this hard behaviour, some rocks were exchanged from both sides. Some of the asylum seekers were hurt and taken to hospital.

SARAH MACDONALD: What's going to happen to you all?

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: We don't know.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Afghani's have been offered money to return home.

SARAH MACDONALD: Has no one taken up the two thousand dollar offer from the Australian Government?

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: (Subtitles) No. No-one is willing to take it. Because they think that a financial offer - cannot solve their problems inside Afghanistan. Our main problem is not financial help - we have security problems in our home.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australia says Afghanistan is safe now the Taliban have gone. But for some here it's not the Taliban they fear but the moneylenders they borrowed from for their trip to Australia. You can't pay the money back if you're stuck on Nauru.

SARAH MACDONALD: I also wanted to find this man - Basim Gazzie Grawak - the Iraqi who claimed to have been forcibly removed from the Australian naval ship onto Nauru a year ago.

SARAH MACDONALD: I go to the Iraqi camp on the other side of the island in search of him.

SARAH MACDONALD: No one knows where he is.

SARAH MACDONALD: Nauru's an island of cages. Locals catch frigate birds by throwing stones on ropes around their wings for entertainment.

SARAH MACDONALD: It's one of the few activities now their phosphate industry lies rusting in the ocean.

SARAH MACDONALD: These people suffer one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. The majority are clinically obese on packaged, imported food, a habit learned during the good times.

SARAH MACDONALD: A US money laundering task force has just exposed Nauru as the Pacific's worst black hole for the world's ill-gotten gains.

SARAH MACDONALD: A more legitimate money earner is incarcerating asylum seekers on behalf of Australia. Thirty million dollars has been paid and more is to come.

SARAH MACDONALD: But not all Nauruans are happy with the deal.

DR KEIRAN KEKE: We believe that Australia has an obligation to at least assist Nauru and it shouldn't be done because we're providing them with something else. The other issue tied in with that is that we're dealing with people's lives, the asylum seekers, refugees and they're becoming the, you know the vehicle for the money to be transferred.

SARAH MACDONALD: Dr Keiran Keke is bitter that limited resources are being spent on non-Nauruans.

DR KEIRAN KEKE: Bringing in a number of people that equates to a ten percent or fifteen percent of our population just puts an extra strain on the, on the whole country. It would impact on our health service, which is a service that is, you know understaffed, under equipped, debilitated building, our hospital. We now have a whole ward that is basically dedicated to asylum seekers, which means that at times in the last year we've not had enough beds for Nauruans and Nauruans have had to bring their own mattresses to hospital and lie on the floor.

SARAH MACDONALD: Even here the asylum seekers are under guard. They're suffering from the same collective depression syndrome witnessed in other Australian detention camps. It leads to self-harm.

SARAH MACDONALD: Doctor Keke told us at least one person has tried to kill himself and that many are going out of their minds being in an interminable limbo.

DR KEIRAN KEKE: If the asylum seekers' frustration got to the point where they decided to break out of the camps and go on a rampage to you know demonstrate their frustration then we realise that we're vulnerable to that, we can't really defend ourselves against that.

SARAH MACDONALD: IOM workers swim at the port to escape the heat.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Head of Chubb Security doesn't know he's being filmed nor does the Head of IOM, Cy Winter. One of his translators comes to talk to him about us.

CY WINTER: (Subtitle) Those two women are lawyers.

SARAH MACDONALD: So he thinks Kate and I are lawyers. The next day he ambushes us.

SARAH MACDONALD: We have just been read the absolute riot act by the IOM and the Australian consulate here, telling us that they suspect that we are up to no good. They asked us if we were journalists, which we denied and we are now heading up for our last visit to the camp where we have been allowed to talk to a few select people through the fence.

SARAH MACDONALD: A hundred and sixty-eight children live behind the wire fences. This is the Iraqi camp. Three quarters have been granted refugee status but they remain imprisoned while Australia scours the world for someone else to take them.

SIMON RICE (Australian Lawyers for Human Rights): If they were in Australia they would have rights under the Migration Act, they would if they were recognised as refugees, they'd have some claim to remain in Australia as refugees. But not necessarily, they may remain in camps as many do. So in Nauru, they're one step removed from that.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate and I decide to gatecrash an IOM party, the beer is flowing freely. Tucking money into the skirts of dancers is one of the few expenses for the mostly Australian workforce enticed by huge wages to this Pacific Prison.

SARAH MACDONALD: It's no party at the Afghani camp. A twenty-six year old man dropped dead this month; the day after his asylum claim was rejected. Only a hundred of the seven hundred and fifty Afghanis have been accepted as genuine refugees. Mohammad Mehdi wasn't one of them.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate knows she'll never see him again and wants one last visit before we leave.

SARAH MACDONALD: She's immediately detained by the Australian Federal Police and taken to Cy Winter in his hotel room. He grabs and violently pushes her before slamming the door in her face.

SARAH MACDONALD: We smuggled our films out the next day.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Tampa asylum seekers were just the latest in a long line of migrants crossing the oceans to reach Australia. Europeans and later Vietnamese and Cambodians were offered sanctuary from their respective killing fields.

SARAH MACDONALD: Now illegal immigrants are imprisoned indefinitely in mainland desert camps like Woomera.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australians watched these scenes on their nightly news - asylum seekers protesting at their incarceration.

SARAH MACDONALD: Some sewed their own lips together.

SARAH MACDONALD: And leapt upon razor wire.

SARAH MACDONALD: Children began to harm themselves alongside the adults.

SARAH MACDONALD: The United Nations accused Australia's Government of 'degrading and inhuman treatment of asylum seekers'.

PHILIP RUDDOCK (Minster for Immigration): We're not going to allow the criticism, unjustly mounted about the way in which we look after people, to deter us from implementing measures that we know are effective in insuring that people do not seek to come to Australia without authority.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Government sent this video around the Middle East to dissuade unwanted guests.

VOICE OVER: People are often left in remote areas thousands of kilometres from their destination.

VOICE OVER: It is not worth the risk.

After the Tampa the boats kept coming - sailing into the midst of a fiercely fought election campaign in which they played a crucial role.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Government called them Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicles, SIEV's and gave each one a number.

TONY KEVIN (Former Ambassador to Cambodia): It was something of a, of a phoney war, nobody was being shot but there was an invasion psychosis in the air. There was a sense that we were being invaded by these unarmed people and there was a great fear and loathing of them which the Government of Australia, the Howard Government, certainly whipped up consciously and deliberately as part of its election campaign.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: As many as ten thousand people could be packing up now in the Middle East with a view to trying to access Australia.

SARAH MACDONALD: When this, SIEV 4, the fourth boat to reach Australian waters in two months, was intercepted by the Navy, the Prime Minister seized on it as an example to the voters of how dangerous and inhuman asylum seekers could be.

PHILIP: It's a busy morning for anybody and especially busy morning for our Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, who joins me in the studio this morning. Mr Howard; good morning.

JOHN HOWARD: Good morning Philip.

PHILIP: Can we turn to the refugee issue, I mean I was horrified, I think every parent would have been about the, the image you had at the weekend of, of boat people throwing their children overboard.

SARAH MACDONALD: At the height of the election campaign the Government released these pictures supposedly showing children throw into the water by their parents as a ploy to blackmail the Navy into taking them to Australia.

JOHN HOWARD: I don't want in Australia people who would throw their own children into the sea.

JOHN HOWARD (Australian Prime Minister): There is something to me incompatible between somebody who claims to be a refugee and somebody who would throw their own child into the sea. It offends the natural instinct of protection and delivering security and safety to your children.

SARAH MACDONALD: The next day journalists began asking questions about what was becoming known as the ‘children overboard affair'. Like; how old were the children supposedly thrown into the water?

PHILIP RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration): I don't have that detail but I, I imagine the sorts of children who would be, would be thrown would be those who could be readily lifted and tossed without, without any objection from them.

SARAH MACDONALD: Serious doubts began to surface about the truth of the 'children overboard affair'. And a senate enquiry was launched into the Government's role.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Navy began to distance itself from the politics behind the claims.

CHIEF AIR MARSHALL ANGUS HOUSTON: Fundamentally there was nothing to suggest that women and children had been thrown into the water.

SARAH MACDONALD: It emerged that in fact the photographs were taken after the overloaded fishing boat had genuinely sunk - throwing the asylum seekers into the water.

SARAH MACDONALD: They were rescued by the Navy, not on the day the Government claimed but a day later.

VOICE OVER: Until six on 3AW, drive with Stan Zemanek

STAN ZEMANEK: And welcome back to the programme, if you'd like to give us a call, you can, nine, six, nine, six, twelve, seventy-eight. Now it's a very special subject that we're going to talk about because we're going to talk about, for this next hour, the detention centre, the asylum seekers, the queue jumpers -

SARAH MACDONALD: Talkback radio shock-jocks like Stan Zemanek, supported the Government's hard-line asylum policy during the election. So did his callers. They still do.

CALLER: And we must back our Government to the hilt -

STAN ZEMANEK Radio 3AW: Even when the Government were found to be, or some people in the Government were found to be lying, that didn't, that did not change anybody's mind here in Australia. They still believed exactly the same thing, that the Government and the people of Australia have a right to protect their borders.

STAN ZEMANEK: Paul, hello.

PAUL: Yeah gidday Stan, I reckon the Government's just not spending enough money, they should build bigger ships so they patrol more of the ocean around Australia because I don't want my money going to them.

STAN ZEMANEK: Well look, I think they've sent out the message to all the people smugglers not to bring anybody here anymore because that's what's going to happen, you're going to end up on an island somewhere and the majority of those people are going to go back.

STAN ZEMANEK: Remember the Tampa and everyone remembers the Tampa, only twenty- five of those turned out to be genuine refugees. And we must look after the genuine refugees but as far as I'm concerned we can actually kick them right in the backside and put them on the next plane and send them back home. Jacob hello.

JACOB: Ah yes, thanks Stan, hello. About those refugees. I agree with you a hundred percent. I think instead of sending them in an aeroplane, why make the plane dirty, put them in a suitcase the same way they come and send them back home with empty pockets.

STAN ZEMANEK: You'd send them back on the ship.


STAN ZEMANEK: It is a couple of minutes to five -

SARAH MACDONALD: Buoyed by that kind of public support the Government took the Pacific Solution a step further.

SARAH MACDONALD: This is Christmas Island; it's the first piece of Australian territory the refugees can reach from Indonesia. From here the Government launched Operation Relex - warships and spy planes to sweep the seas for boat people.

SARAH MACDONALD: And then it changed its laws so that now no boat people who land here can claim asylum. Australian territory but as far as any would-be refugees are concerned, no longer Australia.

SARAH MACDONALD: And that had a direct effect on the next SIEV boat to arrive at Christmas Island.

SARAH MACDONALD: Said Sianni and his wife had fled Afghanistan, paying a people smuggler eight thousand four hundred American dollars.

JUDITH QUINLIVAN: On the seventh day of the boat trip on a very unseaworthy vessel they were intercepted by Customs and the Navy. At that time the boat basically caught on fire and his wife was very frightened, she didn't want to jump, people were screaming and just desperately frantic.

JUDITH QUINLIVAN (Christmas Island lawyer): He jumped with his wife and he just lost, lost his grip holding her when they hit the water and he, he then held out some hope that she had been rescued but he found out about twelve hours later that in fact she had drowned.

SARAH MACDONALD: Said's wife Fatima was five months pregnant.

SARAH MACDONALD: There's another grave too. Nurian Husseini, travelling with her son, also drowned.

SARAH MACDONALD: Reports that this boat had been sabotaged to prevent the Navy turning it back out to sea reached the Prime Minister during his campaigning.

JOHN HOWARD: They had prepared their vessel to obstruct the Royal Australian Navy boarding parties and had set about deliberately destroying their vessel in order to avoid their return to Indonesia. The fire was deliberately lit and the exploding drum is indicative of an attempt to prevent the boarding party from extinguishing the fire.

SARAH MACDONALD: The full story of how Fatima drowned while being rescued by the Navy has still to emerge a year later. She and Said have become symbols of what lawyers claim is the Government's disregard for the rights of asylum seekers.

SIMON RICE: There is no reason why somebody's death should be treated differently simply because they were seeking asylum here. And our concern is that to treat it differently only compounds the direction Australia has taken which is to characterise asylum seekers as somehow less deserving of our practical protection and legal system than anybody else.

SARAH MACDONALD: Said lost his wife and unborn child to find himself in limbo. He can't claim asylum and remains under guard on Christmas Island. We were not allowed to talk to him.

SARAH MACDONALD: SIEV number six arrived in early October.

SARAH MACDONALD: Christmas Islanders filmed their Navy's increasing hostility. Bearing guns and batons they frisked the boat people, forcing them to sit for hours under a hot sun.

SARAH MACDONALD: The asylum seekers on this boat wrote Correspondent a letter alleging even greater brutality.

SARAH MACDONALD: It read that people believed to be inciting others to revolution were handcuffed and lain on their faces.

SARAH MACDONALD: Three soldiers then sat on one person and beat them with what they described as an electrical truncheon vehicle.

SARAH MACDONALD: SIEV number six was held for eleven days before the asylum seekers were shipped to Nauru.

JOHN PACE: Author of Amnesty International report: Cattle prods were used according to the ones I interviewed. In trying to convince people to get on with it when they were shifting boats.

PHILIP RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration): There is no such product as an electric cattle prod in the hands of any our service men or women and I think what you were receiving were stories from people embellished for their own purposes. If people have no such equipment, if no such equipment exists and you get that allegation and take it seriously, you have to ask yourself what was the purpose of the comments that were being made.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Australian Navy says that they don't use those.

JOHN PACE:: Well, the Australian Navy says one thing and their clients say something else and I think it's anybody's guess. My feeling is that I don't want to judge anybody but having had some experience in interviewing people over the years what I heard from the people that I interviewed is pretty credible. I would say that they have been used, yes.

SARAH MACDONALD: Operation Relex was unprepared for the determination of the boat people to reach Christmas Island.

NAVY OFFICIAL: (Subtitles) Indonesia is where you are going. The United Nations can be contacted in an Indonesian port. You are going back to Indonesia, my Government has said that. It's just over there. My Government has told me to take you to Indonesia.

ASYLUM SEEKER: (Subtitles) You can kill me now. Kill me now, because Saddam will kill me.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Navy held this boat for four days before pushing it back out to sea.

Shouting: Man Man overboard! Man overboard!

SARAH MACDONALD: When they realise they're being returned to Indonesia, they go crazy.


SARAH MACDONALD: Sabotaging their boat does not stop their return. Australia by now wasn't even trying to discover if the boat people had legitimate fears of persecution.

SARAH MACDONALD: Just a few weeks before the election the war against asylum seekers reached fever pitch. The command post for Operation Relex was inside the Prime Minister's office

SARAH MACDONALD: On October the nineteenth, another boat embarked from Indonesia towards Australia. Three hundred and ninety-seven asylum seekers were forced onboard at gunpoint. In the night it broke apart.

SARAH MACDONALD: As Sondos Ismail clung to wreckage, ships arrived and shone lights over the survivors but didn't rescue anyone.

SARAH MACDONALD: Over the next twenty hours her daughters Zhra, Fatima and Eman drowned one by one in her arms.

SARAH MACDONALD: Three hundred and fifty-three people died. Sondos and forty-three others were eventually rescued and as their stories emerged, questions started to be asked of the Australian Government.

SARAH MACDONALD: Why, when Operation Relex was sweeping the seas between Indonesia and Australia, did it miss this dangerously overcrowded boat?

TONY KEVIN (Former Ambassador to Cambodia): I started off thinking that perhaps somewhere in the intelligence apparatus, reports of the departure of this boat had been concealed because I couldn't conceive that our Navy in charge of the border protection operation would have known that there was a boat coming grossly overloaded, probably sabotaged, with over four hundred people onboard a nineteen metre wooden boat and not have been out there actively looking for it. And yet, this clearly wasn't done in this case and it's become more and more apparent to me that it's almost as if Operation Relex didn't want to find this boat.

SARAH MACDONALD: At first Australia denied knowing the boat had even left. Then it said that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters so it had nothing to do with them. But slowly it emerged that not only was the boat in international waters but Australia's own intelligence had warned the Government it was on its way and dangerously overcrowded.

SARAH MACDONALD: It had even been allocated a number - SIEV number eight.

SARAH MACDONALD: For whatever reason, Operation Relex was not told to look for the boat - so it didn't. After it sunk the Government removed its number from its records as though it never existed.

TONY KEVIN: It would have been a useful message in terms both of the Australian election, which was very tightly contested at the time, to try and send a message to the voters you really do need to have strong border protection when all these terrible things are happening and finally of course it sent a huge deterrent signal to the two thousand or so people waiting in Indonesia to come to Australia. It basically destroyed the people smuggling industry and within a very few weeks the flow of people dried up completely. So, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that this possibly coincidental tragedy had enormous benefits for the Howard Government.

SARAH MACDONALD: A hundred and forty-six children. A hundred and forty-two women and sixty-six men drowned on the unknown SIEV.

SARAH MACDONALD: A month later the Howard Government, that had staked its re- election on refugees, was returned to power with an increased majority.

SARAH MACDONALD: New Zealand, Australia's ally and rival, has taken over a hundred of the Tampa asylum seekers.

SARAH MACDONALD: This is New Zealand's answer to the refugee crisis. In the last few days five Afghani's and some Iraqi's have been granted refugee status and been brought here to New Zealand's reception centre. We have been allowed to see them, unlike in Australia and Nauru. This is the level of security.

SARAH MACDONALD: Hi, can we go on through? Thanks.

SARAH MACDONALD: It's lesson time for New Zealand's newest citizens. Over the next six weeks, they'll be provided with a passport, bank account, housing and money.

SARAH MACDONALD: Inside I discover Basim Gazzie Grawak, the man we'd looked for in Nauru, who claims he was assaulted by the Navy in the ship-to-shore stand- off.

BASIM GAZZIE GRAWAK VOICE OVER: They took us by force and they hit me on my back and when I was in Nauru my urine was bloody and I couldn't move and I asked for medical assistance and they refused to help me or let me make a report of marks on our body.

SARAH MACDONALD: There's a sadness amongst the refugees here for those they've left behind in Nauru.

BASIM GAZZIE GRAWAK VOICE OVER: We escaped from the death, how could we return to the death. If Australia wanted to take us back to our country we would be killed. It would be better for Australia to kill us in Nauru. Saddam used to kill people quickly but Australia kills you slowly.

SARAH MACDONALD: Then he told a story we hadn't expected. Basim's mother and four brothers were to follow him to Australia on another SIEV organised by people smugglers.

BASIM GAZZIE GRAWAK VOICE OVER: Before he come to Nauru he knew they will get on this boat, then he sees on satellite that this boat is sinking. He asked the IOM to let him communicate with friends in Indonesia. He knew that this smuggler, Abu Cosi, that his boat was sinking. He phoned to camp in Indonesia and they told him that all his family were on that boat that was sinking.

SARAH MACDONALD: His mother and brothers drowned with nearly four hundred others on the unknown SIEV.

SARAH MACDONALD: Australia can rightly claim its border protection policy has been hugely successful. This year not one boat has embarked towards its coast.

SARAH MACDONALD: Only a few of the Tampa asylum seekers have been granted refugee status. The remaining will be forcibly repatriated in the next few months.

SARAH MACDONALD: The Pacific Solution cost half a billion dollars. A few thousand asylum seekers were stopped from reaching Australia's shores and four hundred men, women and children died.

SARAH MACDONALD: One of the interesting things about Nauru was that no journalists and no lawyers are allowed in there, why is that?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, it's a matter for Nauru but let me make the point; I haven't always found the role of journalists or lawyers helpful in terms of management of a detention environment.

SARAH MACDONALD: I see that you wear an Amnesty badge and yet you and your policies have been heavily criticised by Amnesty International. How do you square your badge with your own policies?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, the fact that I've been a long-standing member of Amnesty reflects my interest and long-standing interest in, in human rights issues. And I think Amnesty is a very worthy organisation but it doesn't always get it right.

STAN ZEMANEK: It is twenty-two minutes after four, this is Stan Zemanek on 3AW. Kate, hello.

SARAH MACDONALD: Kate Durham is still fighting for asylum seekers locked on Nauru. But like most Australian's opposed to their Government's refugee policies, it's hard to be heard.

KATE DURHAM: - what is legal. You probably need a little legal advice.

STAN ZEMANEK: Are you a legal person Kate?

KATE DURHAM: I'm not but I'm married to one and we've spoken before -

STAN ZEMANEK: That's always dangerous - married to a lawyer. You don't know who the prostitute is.

KATE DURHAM: I beg your pardon.

STAN ZEMANEK: Unfortunately you've been brainwashed by your silly bloody husband. Anybody that comes in on the boat and they don't have their documentation, they don't have approval to come into this country, those people are illegal. Do you understand that? Can you get through your thick dick skull? Helen, hello.

HELEN: Hello.


HELEN: Would you just listen to this little bit:

It's time to go back all your refugees, we'll give you some money to go.
Pack up your bags and grab all the kids, we don't want to hear you say no.
Now take up our offer of cash and a plane, you've got twenty-eight days to reply.
Detention's not bad, it was all that we had, at least you could see our blue skies.
So come on you people and get on that plane, a new life is waiting for you.
If you run into trouble while begging in the rubble, remember don't call us, we'll call you.

VOICE OVER: You can comment on tonight's programme by visiting our web site at:

Credits: Reported & Directed by SARAH MACDONALD
Graphic Design STEVE ENGLAND
Production Manager JANE WILLEY
Film Research NICK DODD
Picture Editor IAN CORCORAN
Deputy Editor DAVID BELTON

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