Newcastle City Council was the second city in Australia to declare itself a Welcome Zone for refugees in 2004.
It has maintained its commitment and, in that spirit, installed a plaque commemorating the tragic sinking of the SIEV-X 21 years ago.
Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy organised a ceremony on October 22. In that disaster 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned. About a dozen survivors made it to Australia, and about 30 were shipped off to other countries.
Then Prime Minister John Howard allowed the SIEV-X to sink. A generation has grown up thinking that the Howard government’s racist slurs about asylum seekers being “evil”.
The Howard government allowed the SIEV-X to sink as a deterrent to other asylum seekers. He demanded that the asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter the Tampa be taken by force to Nauru.
He wanted to normalise racism towards asylum seekers.
Buddhist priest Gregg Heathcote, who spoke at the memorial’s unveiling, explained how the setting of the plaque into a sandstone block was reminiscent of the ballast ships use when they are empty to remain stable.
He said ballast was like shame: “Without a sense of shame, we are lost”.
“The importance of such memorials,” he said, “is that it gifts us the sense of shame we need, so we know how we should be honouring each other as human beings.”
He added, dryly, that many politicians are without a sense of shame.
[Niko Leka is an activist with the Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy.]