Boatloads lost in sea of red tape

July 20, 2013 12:00AM

THEY are rarely more than a number. They gambled everything on a boat voyage, but those whose journey ended in a body bag remain forever invisible.

Their photographs pop up alongside desperate messages in the pages of online forums. Here is Ezatullah Fiazi and his wife, Hakima, ethnic Hazaras, proudly holding their baby Taha.

Their boat left the coast of Indonesia last August and they were never heard from again.

And here is Sura Omar Ibrahim Milhem, just 13, her chubby face smilingly cloaked in a shimmering purple hijab. Displaced from Iraq, she set out on a boat from Indonesia with her parents and three siblings, aged 12, two and one, on June 28 last year. She is one of 67 missing, yet for six weeks after that boat's disappearance there was no indication from the federal government that it had ever existed. For Sura's infant companions, who almost certainly died, there is not a photograph left behind; these children rate no mention in any Australian government record.

Indeed, such a record barely exists at all except in the hidden bowels of a disparate array of government agencies. Figures of asylum-seekers who have died at sea are not publicly available.

Red tape stymies those who would seek to give the dead a name, like Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope, who anguishes over the body of a one-year-old baby.

"He remains in our mortuary, which I drive past every day," Stanhope tells Inquirer. "And I can't help but think of him every time.

"I am thinking of this little child and I think it would help me, and I think it would help others, to know that poor little boy had a name, whether it was Mohammed or Adam, to recognise his humanity."

There can be no doubt authorities know who the baby is; the little boy's mother was rescued from a sinking boat off the coast of Christmas Island this week.

Yet according to a complex and intersecting array of agency protocols, the baby's identity will not be publicly acknowledged for many months, perhaps never at all.

"It is an absolute indictment on a country that we cannot name a drowned baby whose mother currently grieves for his loss," says Monash University professor of criminology Sharon Pickering, who is one of a team that publishes the Australian Border Deaths Database, which records border-related deaths at sea and in immigration detention.

"The identity of those who died are individuals with families and loved ones, but also they are people who are dying within our own borders. To recognise the lives lost and to prevent that loss of life, we need a publicly available cumulative record."

In an attempt to obtain an official record of lives lost at sea since 2007, Inquirer consulted the media arms of six government agencies this week - the Immigration Department, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the West Australian Coroner, Western Australia Police, the Australian Federal Police, and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

None was able to offer a ready record of asylum-seeker deaths.

The only agency that publicly identifies asylum-seekers lost at sea is the WA Coroner, which releases names in the event that public hearings are held during an inquest into a boat tragedy, subject to the issue of suppression orders. This happened in the case of the Christmas Island shipwreck in late 2010, more than a year after the event. Those victims represent just 50 of the many hundreds of asylum-seekers believed to have died at sea since the first mass drowning of asylum-seekers from the SIEV-X in 2001.

Retired Australian ambassador Tony Kevin blames politics for the failure to publish an official database of boat drownings.

"It's politically embarrassing to officially state a number," Kevin says. "But I think that shows disrespect for the dead and their families.

"In terms of Australian values, mainstream Australian values, official agencies should not be holding back the names of people who die in these incidents."

Additional reporting: Paige Taylor


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