Tuesday, 23 July 2024  
How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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by Marg Hutton
last updated: 3 June 2013

(This page is a work in progress and will be updated as time permits. If you have suggestions for questions that should be included or answers that you believe should be amended please contact me.)

What is SIEVX?

SIEVX is the acronym for 'Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X' (the X stands for 'unknown'). It is the name by which we have come to know the nameless, dilapidated, criminally overloaded Indonesian fishing boat that sank en route to Australia's Christmas Island on 19 October 2001 drowning more than 350 asylum seekers. (The name was first used in an article published in the Canberra Times in March 2002 and was gradually taken up by the media and officials as a convenient way to refer to the vessel. The acronym 'SIEV' originated in the Australian Defence Force .)

How many died and how many survived on SIEVX?

To date, there is still no exact figure for the number of people who lost their lives on SIEVX. The generally accepted number is 353 - 146 children, 142 women and 65 men, but this is only an estimate. The numbers comes from contemporaneous media reports and 'Person 14' in Keysar Trad's transcript of the videotaped meeting of the survivors in Bogor in the week after the sinking. Variations in the reckoning of the numbers who perished on SIEVX may in part be explained by different methods of determining at what age a child can be considered an adult. For example, 'Person 14' in the Trad transcript counts the 12 year old orphaned survivor, Zaynab Alrimahi as a woman rather than as a child. However, what is certain is that the majority of those who drowned on SIEVX were women and children.

There were 68 survivors of the SIEVX voyage - 23 who left the boat several hours into the journey due to fears for its safety and 44 who survived the sinking and spent up to 20 hours in the water before being rescued by Indonesian fishing boats on 20 October and 1 who was rescued in the early hours of 21 October.

Do we know the names of those who drowned on SIEVX?

In January 2003, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) responded to a question asked in Senate Estimates the previous November concerning Australian authorities knowledge of the names of those who died on SIEVX. The AFP informed the Senate that they knew of:

three lists which detail passengers purported to have boarded the vessel, those that disembarked the vessel shortly after it commenced its journey, and those that survived the tragedy. It is the AFP's understanding that the lists emanated from the IOM, DIMIA and AFP enquiries [QoN 56].

Since that time, despite repeated requests by Senators Collins and Brown and a Senate motion calling on the Government to produce the list of names of SIEVX victims, this information has still not been released. In March 2005 Senator Brown again asked for the names of the dead to be released. Senator Vanstone replied denying this request on the grounds that 'the Government does not hold comprehensive information nor is it in a position to verify it'. Even if the government only holds partial and unconfirmed information on the SIEVX passengers it is hard to fathom why it cannot release it. It is difficult to conceive of another circumstance where the details of those who lost their lives in a major disaster could be so long withheld.

On the fifth anniversary of the sinking in October 2006, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert moved a motion in the Senate asking for the three lists of names to be tabled. It was defeated.

I have compiled a database of SIEVX passengers using information gleaned from media reports and other sources. The database currently holds about 160 names, so is well short of being a definitive list of those who travelled on SIEVX. However, in the absence of authorities releasing the passenger lists they hold, this is the most complete source available at present.

For more information on the quest for the names of the victims and survivors of the SIEVX disaster see these articles:

Why were so many women and children on SIEVX?

(Thanks to Sue Hoffman for providing this Q & A)

The introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) in October 1999 saw an increase in the numbers of women and children attempting the dangerous ocean voyage from Indonesia to Australia, and was the primary reason there were so many women and children on SIEVX.

Most TPV holders were men, and unlike other refugees, were not allowed to bring their families to join them in Australia. They were not permitted to leave this country and return. And their family members overseas could not visit them here, as tourist visas are not generally issued to people from refugee-generating countries.

TPVs created a new market for people smugglers - women and children living overseas, desperate to be with husbands and fathers in Australia but with no legitimate means of reuniting as a family.

In the words of one Iraqi refugee:
'If they allowed us to bring our families this would not have happened... 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.'

For more on TPVs and how they relate to SIEVX see our SIEVX reading guide.

Where did the sinking occur?

See 'So where did SIEVX sink?' in this website commentary.

Why did SIEVX sink?

This is a key question at the heart of the SIEVX issue.

A number of theories have been put forward by commentators. Some believe that the sinking was the inevitable result of a greedy people smuggler grossly overloading a leaking hulk by more than twice its load limit in order to ruthlessly maximise profits. Others theorize that the boat was deliberately sabotaged as a deterrent to halt the people smuggling trade from Indonesia to Australia.

It can be difficult to imagine any Australian complicity in such a tragedy. But it is important to note that at the time of the sinking Australia, with the assistance of special units of Indonesian police, was involved in a covert disruption program targetting people smugglers operating inside Indonesia. Disruption tactics included establishing 'sting' shipping companies in strategic locations and selling passage to asylum seekers on phoney voyages to Ashmore Reef & Christmas Island and keeping their money so they could not buy places on other boats.

One informant connected with the disruption program boasted to Channel 9 reporter, Ross Coulthart that he had arranged for Indonesian locals on four or five occasions to scuttle boats packed with asylum seekers. He claimed that as the boats were sunk close to land so everyone got off safely, there was no cause for concern!

To date no direct link has been established between the disruption program and the sinking of SIEVX. However, this possibility cannot be ruled out, given that SIEVX sunk at the height of this program and only a week after the People Smuggling Taskforce discussed 'beefing up' disruption.

The Senate is so concerned about this possibility that it has passed three resolutions calling for the government to set up an independent judicial inquiry into the people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia and the sinking of SIEVX.

To find out more about the disruption program see the sources listed in our SIEVX Reading Guide. See in particular, Senator John Faulkner's three adjournment speeches on the disruption program. Also listen here to Senator Faulkner's chilling "Licence to Kill" speech.

How many other asylum seeker vessels have foundered en route to Australian territory with major loss of life?
How many people have drowned attempting to seek refuge in Australia?

I am researching all asylum seeker drowning incidents that have occurred en route to Australia over the last few decades. For a comprehensive record of all these incidents see 'Drownings on the public record of people attempting to enter Australia irregularly by boat since 1998'. See also 'Mortality on Attempted Irregular Boat Voyages to Australia'

Pages are gradually being added to this site for each of the major loss of life incidents referenced in this table. Currently, the following have been added: SIEV 358 - 'Kaniva'

How has the Senate as the House of Review responded to the SIEVX issue?

The Senate has passed five resolutions related to the SIEVX tragedy:
  1. 10 December 2002 - moved by Senator Faulkner - (judicial inquiry)
  2. 11 December 2002 - moved by Senator Collins - (Abu Quassey)
  3. 15 October 2003 - moved by Senator Brown - (list of names)
  4. 16 October 2003 - moved by Senator Bartlett - (judicial inquiry)
  5. 22 June 2004 - moved by Senator Bartlett - (judicial inquiry)
There have been another four SIEVX related resolutions moved in the Senate that have failed:
  1. 18 October 2006 - moved by Senator Siewert - (lists of names)
  2. 19 October 2006 - moved by Senator Bartlett - (permission for SIEVX memorial)
  3. 15 October 2008 - moved by Senator Hanson-Young - (judicial inquiry)
  4. 12 October 2011 - moved by Senator Milne - (judicial inquiry)
SIEVX has been the subject of much discussion and debate in both houses of Parliament over the last ten years. Since Labor came to power federally in 2007 it appears to have lost interest in the SIEVX tragedy and it has fallen to the minor parties to continue to progress the issue. For links to questions asked in Senate Estimates and on Notice concerning SIEVX and associated matters over the years see here.


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