Voyage of the damned

By Tony Kevin
August 2, 2004

On October 19, 2001, there was a mass drowning in the seas between Indonesia and Australia. A total of 353 people perished when their boat, which later became known as SIEV X, sank in international waters on the way to Christmas Island, where they had been headed to request asylum in Australia as refugees.

The sinking happened at the height of the Australian Government's war against people smugglers, which had begun about two years earlier.

Three days after SIEV X sank 44 survivors were landed in Jakarta on a fishing boat. Overnight, the disaster became front-page international news. Initially, it was not seen particularly as a story with Australian connections.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said repeatedly that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters, and that it was not Australia's responsibility. Both claims were accepted at the time. Both were later shown to be untrue. This event had immediate and profound international consequences.

Within two days, Indonesia acceded to Australia's longstanding demand to accept the return of asylum-seeker boats that the Royal Australian Navy towed back to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters. Indonesia also agreed to an international diplomatic conference against people smuggling, held in Bali in February 2002.

Almost immediately the boats stopped coming; the sinking of SIEV X finally deterred the trade in unauthorised asylum-seeker voyages from Indonesia to Australia. Most analysts have concluded that Howard gained re-election because his border-protection war had proved his credentials as a strong national leader.


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