Talk given by Sarah Stephen
Newcastle public meeting
3 October 2002

The Howard government’s increasingly harsh refugee policy has had its victims, particularly in the past three years. They have included suicides in detention centres, people denied refugee status yet deported back to persecution and possible death; but nothing will surpass the greatest tragedy of them all - the deaths of 353 asylum seekers, most of them women and children, when a small, unseaworthy fishing boat sank in international waters south of Java on October 19, on its way to Australia.

Many of the victims were the wives and children of men who arrived in Australia during the last three years, but who are trapped here on temporary protection visas, unable to bring their families to safety, unable to leave the country to visit them. This cruel and punitive policy of the Howard government gave many refugees no choice but to risk their lives in a frightening journey across the ocean, if they ever wanted to see each other again.

Many vigils and protest rallies will mark the anniversary of this tragic mass drowning in two weeks’ time. For many of us, news of the tragedy a year ago was a horrifying reality-check, a reinforcement that so many human lives are at stake in this government’s crazy game of border protection.

The senate committee, which was first set up to investigate the government’s lies about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard, also investigated claims that the navy must have known about SIEVX, given that it sank during Australia’s largest ever maritime surveillance and naval interception program. In fact, if Tony Kevin hadn't raised the hypothesis, we may never have heard anything more about it.

The committee heard hundreds of hours of submissions from government and navy witnesses over five months. As far back as March, the conflicting testimony of witnesses revealed that the government did have something to hide. Yet before this conflicting information had been tested, before witnesses who had lied were called to reappear, before measures had been taken to compel reluctant witnesses to appear, on July 31 the committee stopped its public hearings.

This makes a mockery of the committee’s work, just as it makes a mockery of government accountability. The senate can demand the appearance of those who are unwilling to give evidence before an inquiry, issuing them with a summons if necessary; but the committee members decided not to exercise their powers to seek out the truth.

The Labor Party deserves particular criticism for shutting down the committee. Labor, along with Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, made up a majority on the committee.

It is true that the committee’s work was getting increasingly harder, with witnesses simply refusing to answer many questions - often on the spurious grounds that the information related to issues of national security, and therefore couldn’t be disclosed - but the fact remains that the government has been allowed to make a mockery of the senate committee process, with the help of the ALP.

The committee’s report was first due to be tabled in the Senate on August 20, then postponed until September 25, and now set for later in October.

Why postpone the release of the report?

According to the committee, they are still waiting on answers to questions they put to the defence department. Perhaps there is also some discomfort that there are some questions the committee cannot and perhaps doesn’t want to tackle in their report.

Why did the Operation Relex command decide that, based on clear intelligence received on 20 October that SIEVX was heavily overcrowded and unseaworthy, there was no need to conduct a heightened search?

Five months of testimony have raised more questions than have been answered. Far from clarifying that the government and navy knew nothing of SIEVX, everything points to a high-level cover-up. Nothing else explains the lies, the changes of testimony, the refusal to release information, the refusal to let key witnesses testify.

Only two weeks ago, on 19 September, the senate committee revealed information it had received that proved immigration minister Philip Ruddock’s knowledge that SIEVX sank in international waters. Yet one of the most persistent claims made throughout the duration of the inquiry, was either that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters, or that it was impossible to determine where it sank. This, of course, gave further weight to the government and navy’s argument that it was not Australia’s responsibility.

So now we know that Ruddock new; the PM's people-smuggling taskforce knew that SIEVX sank in international waters; the fishermen who rescued the survivors also confirmed it; all evidence pointed to SIEVX going down in the search and rescue zone being combed twice daily by navy surveillance planes. Yet John Howard and Robert Hill emphatically rejected it, arguing that the evidence didn't exist.

The second major claim, that authorities knew nothing of SIEVX until days after it sank is not true.

On 20 October, the morning that survivors were found, Coastwatch received a call from federal police. The boat had left, it was small, had 400 people aboard, some refusing to get on because it was so overcrowded, the officer said, offering a personal opinion that it might be at increased risk.

Coastwatch phoned the news to the joint intelligence centre before 10am that day, but it seems to have been received with disturbing indifference. Air-surveillance crews were not alerted until the next day’s mission. Air Commodore Philip Byrne said there was nothing important in the report that needed to be passed on to crews in the air at the time. The inquiry wants to know why not, and has asked for the report.

On the one hand, we know that Operation Relex's Northern Command (NORCOM) judged on 20 October that, due to its overcrowding, the boat would travel slowly and therefore might arrive after the initially expected arrival date of 21 October. Then on 21 October, NORCOM assessed that the boat had returned to Java because of unfavourable weather and overcrowding. Based on what evidence? There was not even one heightened search of the area to rule out the possibility that the boat had in fact sank.

Flight charts indicate that, on 19 October, a surveillance flight made radar contact with what might have been SIEVX at 9.20am. the second flight that day made contact with what may have been the wreckage of SIEVX, as well as the ships which a number of survivors reported sighting. It's a requirement that every radar contact be photographed so that the vessels can be visually identified. The Senate committee has not seen these photographs; it needs to have access to them. They would help to clarify important questions which remain unanswered.

As you can see, there remain a number of gaping holes which make it very difficult to conclude whether it was a genuine oversight that the information wasn't passed on to the navy's surveillance pilots; or whether it was in fact a deliberate decision, at the highest levels of government and defence, to turn a blind eye, to pretend that the navy received no information about SIEVX until the rest of the country saw it on TV on 23 October.

Operation Relex

Grappling with this last possibility is best done in the context of the entire military operation in place at the time, and the actions that were undertaken both before and after the SIEVX sank.

The government launched Operation Relex on 3 September, eight days after the Tampa standoff began. Initially it was to be a three-week operation with navy vessels, planes and helicopters patrolling the seas between Indonesia and Australia, but it’s still going strong more than a year later.

At the time, PM Howard said: 'We will do this in a humane way - we will not sink boats.'

Defence minister Robert Hill responded to criticism of the navy by saying that the navy would never abandon its responsibility to assist people whose lives were at risk.

In June, Mike Carlton wrote in the SMH: 'To suggest that any Australian naval officer ignored that moral and legal obligation [to save life at sea], for any reason, is a cruel insult to honour, humanity and duty'. He didn’t take up any of the content of the debate about what happened.

The fact is, the navy has demonstrated, on a number of occasions, a complete disregard for human life. This is largely because orders given to defence personnel involved in Operation Relex were in fundamental contradiction to any concern for human life. - stop boats from coming to Australia, turn them around and send them back if you can, do not rescue asylum seekers until they are in the water. The success of Operation Relex was judged in terms of its ability to deter asylum-seeker boats.

It is rumoured that personnel selected to be part of Operation Relex were chosen on the basis of their hostility to asylum seekers and their support for the government’s policies.

The following examples I’ll give illustrate the frightening lengths the government and navy were prepared to go to in order to stop boats from reaching Australia.

One - Palapa

The first example is the KM Palapa, whose passengers were eventually rescued by the Tampa. Their plight came into the news in late September during a trial of four Indonesian fishermen who crewed the boat. Two of the fishermen were sentenced - one to seven and one to four years. The 'captain' was paid only US$300 for the journey. The other two young men were acquitted by the jury, who decided that they did not know what they were involved in. The boat broke down just one day into its voyage, but the 438 passengers weren’t rescued for another three days

An Afghan asylum seeker, brought from Nauru to testify in the trial, told the Perth District Court on Sept 19: 'the asylum seekers began paddling with broken planks after the engine on the overcrowded boat broke down.' He said relief and excitement had given way to fear when a ship which passed by the next day failed to stop. Two or three days later, they saw a plane. It disappeared but reappeared. 'When the ship wouldn’t stop, the passengers were upset and started crying because they were afraid they were going to die. When we saw the plane they became excited because they thought they would be saved.'

Surveillance Australia Coastwatch coordinator Barry Spencer said he saw people waving from the deck of the boat during two flyovers but did not send out a radio distress signal until later the next day. 'This time people were holding up banners which said "SOS" and "Help" and were waving foreign flags', Spence said.

There are also concerns about the treatment of refugees rescued by the Tampa, and those from another vessel which arrived during the Tampa standoff, who were all transferred to the HMAS Manoora. More than 800 in total, the group included a large number of children. They were taken to Nauru, where many refused to get off the ship. Asylum seekers were kept below deck for long periods. Children with diarrhoea were untreated, toilets flooded, and they were regularly videotaped in the midst of this horror by navy personnel.

The Afghan testifying in the Perth District court said that on one occasion Federal police placed a big pot of jam on deck when the hunger strike entered its 10th day. 'We were hungry and starving', the man said through an interpreter. 'The Australians brought a big pot of jam and put it in the middle. "Everyone was so starving we rushed to eat and they publicised that to show we were all wild because we rushed for the jam. We were not, we were starving'. The standoff lasted nearly three weeks, only being resolved with the use of force. One asylum seeker recounted the experience in a Four Corners report screened in April: 'Suddenly the place was invaded by 20 armed soldiers carrying batons, electric sticks, water hoses and other strange weapons. They hit some of us, including a woman, and forced us to disembark. They told us not to talk about anything'.

Two - SIEV5

On 12 October, HMAS Warramunga intercepted a boatload of around 200 asylum seekers. A baby had died during the voyage due to extreme heat and dehydration, and another had been born on the way. The navy took the boat to Ashmore island and waited for orders from the prime minister’s office. They waited nearly a week. Asylum seekers were forced to stay on board the boat all that time. A navy doctor looked at Fatama, the woman who had given birth while at sea. He was worried about her heavy bleeding. She needed to be treated in a hospital, but the government forbid anyone being brought to the mainland. The official record of her condition is very different - that the mother’s condition had improved, and following specialist advice, the medical officer decided that she didn’t need hospitalisation. The woman was lucky to survive - she continued to bleed for a month.

Navy personnel lied to the asylum seekers that they had been accepted. They transferred families to the Warramunga, and single men stayed on their boat, which they towed behind the Warramunga. Families were forcibly pushed into a small space in the ship’s hold. They were told they would be in the hold for five minutes - they were there for two days, during which time they were taken north. This was the first time a boat had been forcibly towed back to Indonesia, something the government conceded to after the sinking of SIEVX.

After two nights, one of the men was told to pass on the news that they were almost back in Indonesia. They were given 10 minutes to get off the Warramunga and back onto their wooden boat. Everyone cried, some protested. Some refused to leave. One man told Four Corners: 'When the commandoes came into the ship, they covered their faces. They put electric batons against the badges on their shoulders. When the wires touched them, there was a spark so we could see they were electric batons'.

A man who threatened to kill himself to provoke the humanity of Australians was beaten in front of his children. Another who approached the children to comfort them was physically assaulted. The man’s wife was pushed and shoved and kicked in the leg. Her leg swelled up and she couldn’t walk.

According to another asylum seeker, the navy filmed the event. Defence minister Robert Hill said 'I asked the defence force whether they use such equipment and I have been advised that they neither have it nor use it'. When asked if it was appropriate to use force against asylum seekers, he replied: 'We’ll we’re protecting our borders. That’s the point. There are those who wish to breach our borders, to engage in that illegal activity. We’re entitled, and furthermore, we believe it’s our responsibility to do our best to protect our borders'.

So, in other words, yes, violence is okay.

Three - SIEV7

On 22 October, the HMAS Arunta intercepted a boatload of Iraqi asylum seekers. Again, they were taken to Ashmore island and made to wait for six days. Again, they were told that they were being taken to Australia, but were in fact heading for Indonesia. Three hours away from Indonesia, all hell broke loose when the asylum seekers realised what was happening. They were hysterical, suicidal. It’s footage which has been used again and again on TV, with women screaming hysterically. Some jumped in the water. One man held up a child and said 'What law allows you to deport this child and these people in a broken wooden boat?' But only some of the footage is used. What followed was an assault with batons and double-strength capsicum spray. Asylum seekers were put back on their boat, some on the roof of the wheelhouse which began to break under the strain. Then the Arunta left.

This was not a seaworthy vessel. It ran aground 4-500m from Roti island, west of Timor, its engine and pump broken, and started to fill with water. Asylum seekers carried the children to the shore, some men couldn’t see because of the effects of the capsicum spray. The next day, three people were confirmed missing. No-one saw them drowning, but no-one has seen them since.

Four - SIEV4, of the 'Children Overboard' fame

Navy ships were initially directed to use all means short of sinking boats to force them to turn back. In the case of SIEV4, they used loudhailer warnings, then repeated volleys of cannon and machinegun fire across the bow, then dangerous close-quarters blocking maneouvres, and when that didn’t terrify the boat’s crew into turning back, aggressive boarding actions by armed assault teams.

Such tactics of intense psychological warfare failed, because asylum seekers had the courage to stand their ground and disable their boat, trusting that Australian sailors would not really let them drown.

The Howard government ordered that the 223 people including 116 women and children be kept on board their unseaworthy vessel during a 24 hour tow back towards Christmas Island, something which contradicted all the principles of safety of life at sea.

The crew of the HMAS Adelaide were ordered to keep people on the boat until it actually sank and they were in the water. Only then could they be rescued and brought onboard the Adelaide.

The boat finally foundered with only an hour's warning. In a dangerous emergency rescue from the sea, it is a miracle that nobody drowned.

The senate inquiry should be reopened to continue to investigate what happened to ensure that the navy did not search for and rescue the asylum seekers on the SIEVX. It remains one of Australia’s greatest national tragedies, and the truth must be known.

Closing comments

The government argues that we can stop people from coming to Australia in a 'humane' way, that the navy can turn boats back to Indonesia without sinking them, without hurting people - I’ve illustrated that this is not true, that Operation Relex in fact had no concern for human life.

The Australian government’s focus of targetting people smugglers to lock them up and put them out of business is misguided, because as long as there is a desperate demand, others looking to make money will take their place.

There are humane alternatives which would put people smugglers out of business without leaving asylum seekers stranded. They’re alternatives which involve significant changes in policies of rich-country governments worldwide.

For a start, Australia should work with the UNHCR to assess the claims of all asylum seekers who reach Indonesia, and provided assisted passage to Australia for those who qualify.

Second, Australia’s - and all countries’ - intake of refugees should respond to the rise and fall of world crises, such as the outpouring of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq in the last ten years.

Consider if Australia’s response to the plight of Afghan and Iraqi refugees had matched our response to the Vietnamese, when we took in 55,000 refugees in the 1970s and a further 95,000 through family reunion in the 1980’s. It was this response, matched on a worldwide level, that meant fewer people had to risk their lives taking to the seas in boats.

I think it’s our role to work out how to popularise these sorts of alternatives in responding to ongoing humanitarian crisis today.

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