Temporary Protection Visas & SIEV X
by Sue Hoffman
Although many commentators have referred to the part played by Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) in the tragedy that is SIEV X, the significance of TPVs in both the lead-up and aftermath of SIEV X is sometimes overlooked.
TPVs as a contributing factor to SIEV X deaths
Controversy swirls around SIEV X and what caused it to sink. Questions have been asked as to why Australian authorities did not initiate a sea search and rescue operation. Was there too great a focus on stopping refugee boats reaching Australian shores and too little consideration given to safety of life at sea? Could more lives have been saved?
The answers to these questions are contested but what is undisputed is that TPVs are the primary reason so many women and children were on SIEV X in the first place, and therefore a significant factor in the deaths of wives and children of men living in Australia.
TPVs were introduced in October 1999. Unlike Permanent Protection Visa holders, TPV holders were not allowed to bring their families to Australia, and were not allowed to travel outside Australia and return, so they had no way of reuniting with their loved ones.
Most TPV holders were men. Many had wives and children living in danger and poverty overseas. The families were desperate to be together and by disallowing family reunion, the effect of TPVs was to create a new market for people smugglers and a tragedy-in-waiting. Ever-increasing numbers of women and children attempted the dangerous journey. In the words of one Iraqi refugee living in Australia whose wife and children drowned:
'If they allowed us to bring our families this would not have happened... I had no other choice, that was my last option after it became obvious that I had lost hope of seeing my children because of the cruel condition of TPV. There was no other way but the sea to bring my wife and four children.'
Refugee lawyers and DIMIA personnel interviewing new arrivals were well aware of the increasing numbers of women and children arriving by boat, as were detention centre personnel:
'The accommodation including the new compounds was designed with single men in mind. The composition of the camp increasingly included women and children because of the conditions of the TPV which prevented family reunion.'
'The intended use of the WIRPC [WOOMERA] for processing (predominantly) single men was based on the demographics of the asylum-seeker population who had arrived as unlawful non-citizens in the period prior to the establishment of the WIRPC. However, because of the removal of the ability to seek family reunion for those holding temporary protection visas in 1999, these demographics changed and increasingly women and children arrived in Australia unlawfully seeking protection visas.'
A tragedy like SIEV X involving the deaths of large numbers of women and children was predictable, inevitable and avoidable.
The table below draws on data from sievx.com boats database, showing the increase in the number of children on asylum seeker boats after October 1999 when the new legislation came in.
TPVs add to the pain of SIEV X survivors and bereaved
The cruelty of TPV policy was highlighted by the case of Sondos Ismael and Ahmed Alzalimi. Ahmed was living in Sydney on a TPV when his wife Sondos and their three little girls attempted the fatal journey to Australia on SIEV X. The girls drowned but Sondos was rescued and taken with other survivors to Indonesia. Her husband was only able to be with her in Indonesia if he gave up his right to live in Australia. Despite extensive lobbying, it was five months before Sondos was granted a visa that allowed her entry to Australia so she could finally be with her husband, and they could grieve the loss of their daughters together.
Refugees are recognised as a high risk group for mental health issues because of their previous experiences of being caught up in war and conflict. Although denied benefits available to other refugees, TPV holders are allowed to access torture and trauma counselling. Studies have found that TPV holders are 7 times more likely to suffer significant mental health issues compared with other refugees, because of the inherent insecurity of temporary protection combined with incessant worry and loneliness due to separation from family.
The seven SIEV X survivors who were settled in Australia were initially granted TPVs and have waited years for Permanent Protection, with the uncertainty about their future and the fear of being deported to Iraq hanging over them as they struggled to recover from the trauma of 20 hours in the middle of the ocean with the dead bodies of men women and children, in some cases their own kids, floating alongside. 
The suffering of relatives of SIEVX victims has also been exacerbated by TPVs. Four men living in Perth each lost their wives, all their children, and other family members when SIEV X sank.
Conditions of their TPVs did not allow them to leave Australia and return, and Australia does not normally issue tourist visas to people from refugee-generating countries. So despite their tremendous losses, they were unable to gain comfort from meeting with remaining family, who were all overseas.
They waited nearly four years for Permanent Protection Visas; four years before they could travel overseas to hug their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, having suffered the loss of their wives and children.
Four bodies were reportedly recovered and taken to Indonesia within a few days of the sinking. TPV holders with family on SIEV X were informed they would not be permitted re-entry to Australia if they went to Indonesia to try and identify the bodies. The thought that their wives and children might be buried in Indonesia torments to this day, but despite requests, no information has yet been provided that would assist in the identification of these bodies or where they are buried.
The men had another reason for wanting to go to Indonesia. They wanted to visit the places where their families last lived in an attempt to feel close to them, and to speak and mourn with survivors who could tell them precisely how their families died.
Accepting the death of a loved one is a vital step in the grieving process. Without a body or eye-witness account, it can be hard to get to this point. At least two of the bereaved waited for nearly four years to meet with with survivors living overseas and for similar experiences (too personal to recount here) that helped them finally accept that their wives and children were dead. The change in them was marked. But they could have had this confirmation in 2001 if they'd been given permission to travel overseas in the days and weeks following the SIEV X tragedy.
It's hard to imagine the depths of despair, pain and suffering experienced by anyone whose entire family dies, and even harder to understand why the travel restrictions associated with TPVs could not have been relaxed in the aftermath of the sinking, given the part the visas played in this tragedy.
Unconfirmed reports are that all SIEV X survivors/bereaved now have Permanent Protection Visas. Please advise sievx.com if you have information to the contrary.