Refugee deaths commemorated

Issue 

BY PETER ROBSON

“Only one year
ago yesterday, we too lost our brothers and sisters to the violence and
injustice that stalks humanity right across the globe”, refugees' rights
activist Kathy Newnam told people gathered in Newcastle's Civic Park on
October 20. Newnam was attending one of 15 vigils and protests held around
Australia to mark the first anniversary of the sinking of the boat known
as SIEV-X.

After listening to speakers, the 250 protesters in Newcastle marched
quietly down to the beach, where they threw 353 roses into the sea, one
for each of the refugees that died in the boat sinking.

The largest gathering was in Melbourne, where Jody Betzien reports
that more than 1000 people rallied on October 18. Zoe Kennedy from the
Refugee Action Collective (RAC), began the protest by declaring that this

was not just a commemoration, but a determined statement that this should
never happen again.

Protesters around the country expressed anger that the Australian military
knew the boat was in trouble, but failed — by accident or design — to save
it. RAC activist Fleur Taylor referred to this, telling the crowd of growing
evidence implicating the government and the Australian Federal Police in
“disrupting” boats leaving Indonesia by illegal and dangerous means. A
Senate inquiry which investigated the SIEV-X sinking incident will report
on October 23.

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard told the crowd
that the drowning was a shameful moment in Australian history. He condemned
not only the Coalition government, but the Labor opposition as well, pointing
out that 15 months after the Tampa incident, Labor did not have
a comprehensive refugee policy. “The ALP is behaving like a rabbit caught
in the spotlight, paralysed about whether to do what is popular or what
is right”, he said.

The rally marched through the city to the Swanston Street bridge where
flowers were laid to commemorate the lives lost.

Heidi Gill reports from Canberra that 250 people rallied on October
19 to remember the victims of the boat sinking and expose the truth about
who was responsible. The rally followed a morning multi-faith memorial
service.

Rally chair and Refugee Action Committee activist Phil Griffiths asked
protesters to recreate the overcrowding on the boat by standing within
a boundary that represented the actual dimensions of the 19 metre fishing
boat. SIEV-X contained 420 people when it sank, half of whom were below
the deck.

Keyser Trad from the Lebanese Muslim Association of NSW detailed the
horrendous experiences recounted by survivors. He condemned the treatment
of Muslim people by First World governments, and the religious vilification
which accompanies it. “The day will come”, he said, “when [politicians]
will be made accountable for their actions”.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin, whose questions about government inaction
and complicity in the sinking, along with evidence he has provided to the
Senate inquiry into the incident, has led to significant embarrassment
for Prime Minister John Howard and immigration minister Philip Ruddock,
said: “This is not a political argument, this is an argument about facts
and evidence.”

In Wollongong, Grant Coleman reports that 200 people attended
a candlelight vigil on October 18, following a 65-strong afternoon protest
organised by Illawarra High School Students for Refugees.

Laura Ealing, an activist from The Illawarra Grammar School (TIGS),
told the high-school rally: “If we allow bad things to happen without even
questioning them, the world will become a very frightening place. So let's
get informed about the issues. Let's do something about the things we believe.
Let's speak up and let's start thinking for ourselves.”

The vigil, which was organised by the Illawarra Refugee Action Collective,
was addressed by Margaret Reynolds, who is the president of the United
Nations Association of Australia, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle and Simon
Cunich of TIGS Social Action Group.

From Adelaide, Tim Laurie reports that around 150 people attended
a rally organised by the Refugee Action Collective on October 19. Dr U
Ne Oo, a Burmese refugee and RAC activist, condemned the use of political
violence, whether by allowing refugees to drown, or the recent bombings
in Bali.

A march to parliament house was led by a replica of the SIEV-X filled
with flowers, accompanied by an effigy of John Howard “detained” by the
socialist youth group Resistance in his own individual cage.

From Brisbane, Jason Cahill reports that 150 people gathered
on October 20 to hear speakers, including Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett,
former state multicultural affairs executive Uri Ghemal and Jim Souras
from Labor for Refugees.

One-hundred-and-fifty people rallied in Perth on October 19,
reports Alex Salmon. The rally was organised by the Refugee Rights Action
Network and endorsed by a number of refugee-rights organisations.

The protest marched through the streets of Perth to Parliament House,
with shrouded mock corpses representing those who drowned. Statements of
condolence from detainees in detention centres around Australia were read
to conclude the rally. A message from detainees in Baxter detention centre
said: “Do you remember last year the horrific tragedy for 353 lives when
they drowned in Australian waters. Now we see a disaster with perhaps 200
innocent Australians killed a few days ago. They are all human lives filled
with expectation to live in the world with happiness and having fun.”

From Launceston, Kamala Emanuel and Sally Wiltshire report that
80 people braved gusty cold showers on October 19 to commemorate the 353
lives lost. After a welcome to country by Aboriginal elder June Swain,
and an introduction by George Manifold, a minute's silence was observed
in Princes Square. This was followed by a street march in which participants
carried a symbolic replica of the SIEV-X behind a banner declaring “October
19, 2001. 353 lives lost. Remember. Never again. Welcome refugees”, while
a bell tolled 353 times from the adjacent Chalmers tower.

In Civic Square, speakers described the circumstances under which the
asylum seekers were forced by Indonesian police onto the overcrowded boat.
Bob Benseman, who had made the wooden boat for the commemoration, compared
the 19 metre SIEV-X, loaded with over 400 people when it left Indonesia,
to his brother's 19 meter boat, licenced to carry 24 people.

In Hobart, 70 people gathered on parliament lawns on October
19, Alex Bainbridge reports. Father Brian Gore gave the main speech at
the commemoration. He invited participants to imagine what it would be
like to be drowning in the middle of the ocean. He said that such an experience
could legitimately be described as “terror” although, he said, “there is
no war against that terror”.

In Lismore, the Refugee Action Collective and Rural Australians
for Refugees marked the anniversary with a film and discussion evening
on October 17, attended by 50 people, Nick Fredman reports. Featured speakers
were Dave McKay, Cherry McKay and Ross Parry from the Woomera Refugee Embassy,
who also attended a speak-out in Bellingen on October 19. Northern NSW
activists also met Ruddock with pro-refugee and anti-war banners at a function
in Ballina on October 18, and held a speak-out and “die-in” in Lismore
on October 19.

In Darwin, Ruth Ratcliffe reports, 70 people gathered in Raintree
Park on October 19. Following a minute's silence for the victims of the
Bali bombing, Joe Mulqueeny, a Communications, Electrical and Plumbing
Union member and Refugee Action Network activist, commented: “The deaths
of innocent people seem to be the order of the bloody day at the moment.”
Mulqueeny went on to condemn the policies which led to the deaths of 353
people in the SIEV-X disaster.

One hundred people also gathered in Katherine.

Bronwyn Jennings reports that Geelong Rural Australians for Refugees
organised two events around the SIEV-X anniversary. On October 18 a memorial
was held. Wreaths were cast into the bay in memory of the 353 asylum seekers
who died. A rally to commemorate the sinking was attended by 50 people
on October 19. Blustery conditions at the Geelong waterfront did not deter
refugee-rights campaigners and many passing motorists tooted their support.
One protester commented that even though asylum seekers are locked up in
the desert prison at Woomera, they still have it in their hearts to send
condolences to the Australian people in the wake of the Bali tragedy.

From Green Left Weekly, October 23, 2002.

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