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A tale of two funerals

  • 22 February 2011

The funerals last week of eight victims from the boat that sank off Christmas Island in December brought to mind the sinking of the SIEV X.

The boat went down on 19 October 2001 at 3.10pm, en route to Australia. Not one funeral could be held for the 353 asylum seekers who drowned that day. The bodies were lost at sea. No one, apart from the survivors, witnessed the tragedy.

After the initial flurry of media interest, the tragedy disappeared from public consciousness. It was astonishing how quickly amnesia developed about the largest maritime disaster off Australian waters since World War II.

Unlike the SIEV X sinking, the more recent tragedy was witnessed by many people. It took place close to shore, while the other took place on the open seas: out of sight, and eventually out of mind.

The victims were not entirely forgotten. A week after the SIEV X sinking, Melbourne's asylum seeker community gathered in a hall in Preston, Vic., to commemorate the event. The mourners included close relatives of the deceased.

The grief was palpable. I have rarely seen so many distressed people in one gathering. Their distress was compounded because, as holders of temporary protection visas, they could not visit survivors of the tragedy.

The Howard Government did not organise memorial services. More telling was its treatment of survivors who were taken to Jakarta. Seven of the 45 survivors arrived in Australia months later. Those who were accepted by Finland, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Canada, received immediate permanent protection in recognition of their trauma. They were able to begin rebuilding their lives.

In contrast, those who came to Australia received five-year protection visas. Their trauma was compounded.

Iraqi survivor Amal Basry, who arrived in Melbourne eight months after the sinking, told me that when she became aware of the kinder treatment being received by those being sent elsewhere, she had pleaded to be allowed to go with them, even though her husband had preceded her to Australia.

Basry survived by clinging to a corpse for over 20 hours. When she was rescued, she pleaded that the corpse be taken on board so the young woman could have a dignified burial. The captain pointed out that the limited space on the Indonesian fishing boat would better serve survivors.

In a cruel irony, Basry died from cancer in March 2006.

By then she had received her permanent visa. 'I am a free woman in a free country,'