Never forget the SIEV-X

October 19, 2021
A portrait of one of the drowned SIEV-X asylum seekers. Image: Kate Durham

Australia has received visa applications from more than 100,000 people trying to flee Afghanistan since the Taliban took over. However, continuing its history of savagery, the government is only offering 3000 places from its measly annual 13,750 humanitarian visa intake.

This particular chapter began 20 years ago, when it followed the United States into the “war on terror”.

One of its first barbaric actions was to instigate a land, sea and air blockade on those seeking to flee terror. Then-Prime Minister John Howard denied those who had already fled here the right to reunite their families.

It led to desperate women, children, aged parents and their siblings trying to reach their loved ones and becoming ensnared in the federal government’s blockade.

An Indonesian fishing boat, SIEV-X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel-X, unknown), was sunk on October 19 in 2001 in the Royal Australian Navy search and rescue zone. One hundred and forty six children, 142 women and 65 men drowned. It was the greatest loss of life at sea in this region since World War II.

Forty five survivors were picked up a day later by a fishing boat. Two days after they were returned to Java, Indonesia, they told their stories. In the video footage mothers talk of how their children drowned. A broken man, weeping, said: “Wherever you look you see the dead children floating like birds on the water”.

One survivor said there were two large ships that came close enough to shine searchlights, but did not rescue them. Many survivors agreed they remembered that.

It appears that Australian authorities knew who organised the boat and that it was grossly overloaded. It even had a flimsy chipboard upper deck added to allow for more passengers to be squeezed on. They knew its departure point and how much fuel it carried. They also knew it sunk within the Australian surveillance zone, contrary to Howard’s insistence that it sank in Indonesian waters.

Howard laid his electoral strategy bare at a Liberal Party campaign launch: “We decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”. The “we” was not us.

The Senate inquiry that followed the SIEV-X sinking heard extraordinary deceptions and delays by government officials, as detailed by Tony Kevin’s analysis published in A Certain Maritime Incident.

Secrecy won the day against democracy.

Kevin, who provided evidence to the inquiry, later said: “If the Senate cannot get truthful answers from government officials on major questions such as this, who is safe?” When secrecy is on the side of those in power, the answer is that no one is. 

Kevin investigated the sinking of more asylum seeker boats. He revealed the authorities’ deliberate reluctance to rescue asylum seeker boats in his subsequent book, Reluctant Rescuers. It was consistent with the Coalition’s policy of deterrence.

We do not know how many boats have been left to sink; their peril ignored. We do not know to what extent the time-honoured obligation of trying to save lives at sea has been eroded. Still today, the door to desperate people fleeing for their lives remains firmly shut.

However, we know that the war of terror is now being turned on us. The blockade has moved from those seeking to come here, to those who are already here.

The Department of Home Affairs now seeks the power to cancel a person’s visa without them knowing why, or on what evidence the decision was based. The idea of law has become trashed by the practice of politics.

[Dr Niko Leka is an activist with Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy (HASA). On October 19 at 7pm, HASA is hosting Kate Durham, who painted a series of portraits representing those who drowned, Julian Burnside and others to commemorate those who drowned in the SIEV-X disaster. Register here.]

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