Questions Rise over Operations against Asylum Seekers
24 October 2002
By Bob Burton
CANBERRA (IPS) - This week's release of a Senate committee's report has revived calls for a full judicial probe into the October 2001 sinking of a boat with more than 396 asylum seekers, as well as into Australia's 'disruption' operations against people smuggling.
Ever since the sinking on Oct. 19 last year of the boat, codenamed SIEV-X by the Australian military, controversy has raged over the lack of search and rescue efforts by the Australian military forces and over whether the boat had been sabotaged.
This has been the subject of an inquiry by a Senate committee, which tabled its report late on Wednesday (Oct. 23).
Only 44 of the people on board the SIEV-X, which sank on its way from Indonesia to Australia's Christmas Island, survived. At the heart of the controversy are operations conducted in Indonesia by Australian government agencies -- the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade -- aimed at preventing the departure to Australia of boats carrying asylum seekers.
In March this year, Minister for Immigration Philip Ruddock boasted that the government policy of "physically disrupting the work of people smugglers" was one of the reasons why fewer boats with asylum seekers were heading for Australian shores.
Subsequently, it emerged that an Australian living in Indonesia, Kevin Enniss, had been paid over 13,000 U.S. dollars by the Australian Federal Police as an informant while simultaneously working as a people smuggler. Off camera, Enniss boasted to an Australian investigative television reporter and crew that he had paid Indonesian associates to sabotage vessels to prevent them departing for Australia, though he insisted that none had drowned.
While Australian government officials have strenuously denied any direct involvement in sabotaging boats and the SIEV-X, troubling questions remain unanswered.
The report by a Senate Committee Into a Certain Maritime Incident, tabled on Wednesday, included a supplement by the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Sen John Faulkner.
"It is still unclear whether anyone, as a result of Australia's disruption policy, was directly or indirectly involved in the sabotage of vessels in Indonesia and whether Australian ministers, officials or agencies have knowledge of such activities," Faulkner wrote.
In a passionate speech to the Senate following the tabling of the report, Faulkner pledged to press for answers as to whether agents of the Australian government played any role in the sinking of the boat.
"(The committee) recommends that a full and independent inquiry be held into those matters à I hope the government does that à but if they do not, I can promise à (that) at those forums available to us (we) will progress those issues," he added.
In a speech of over 2,600 words, the leading government member on the committee, Sen George Brandis, devoted only 170 words to the SIEV-X tragedy and confined his comments to the lack of a search after the boat sank. "We agree with the finding à. which states, 'On the basis of the above, the committee cannot find grounds for believing that negligence or dereliction of duty was committed in relation to SIEV X'. That is all I propose to say about that (SIEV-X)," he told the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.
Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin who has done much to expose the contradictions in the government's story on the SIEV-X, is not surprised that both Brandis and the government members' dissenting report avoid any significant discussion of the SIEV-X tragedy. "It is consistent with their position from the beginning that they have studiously avoided taking any interest in SIEV-X. They have known it is a potential minefield for them and so they have tried to dismiss it," he said.
When the public first became aware of the tragedy -- three weeks out from an election dominated by rhetoric against asylum seekers -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard insisted the boat sank in Indonesian waters, thereby absolving Australian agencies from responsibility for the disaster. However, the Senate committee inquiry established that the boat sank in international waters and within the search and rescue zone patrolled by the Australian military.
Kevin welcomed the debate over the report for "the nailing of Howard's claim that it sank in Indonesian waters".
While government members insist there is no direct evidence of Australian government responsibility for the SIEV-X disaster, the chairman of the Senate inquiry, Sen Peter Cook, stressed the committee was frustrated by a Cabinet decision directing that no ministerial staff appear before the inquiry or government agencies make submissions to it.
However, the recommendation for a judicial inquiry -- the calling of which is at the discretion of Howard, who has little to gain from re-opening the controversy -- is likely to founder unless dramatic new evidence emerges. Still, Kevin remains hopeful that new evidence will emerge and ensure cross-party support for a judicial inquiry that can compel witnesses to appear and provide evidence.
"We are not going to throw in the towel," he said. "Let's wait and see how evidence develops, let's see what leaks there may be, let's see what whistleblowers emerge and what might come out of Faulkner's pursuing the (government's) people-smuggling disruption programme," Kevin added.