Another 'certain maritime incident'

A Certain Maritime Incident, by Tony KevinWhile many refugee rights advocates and legal commentators were busily taking up positions on who should take responsibility for two boatloads of asylum seekers marooned in boats in Indonesian ports on interrupted attempted journeys to Australia, along comes pure tragedy.

This week's refugee deaths on the high seas, to the west of the Cocos Islands, remind us of what this is really about: desperate people prepared to risk their lives in perilous efforts to escape persecution and hopelessness in their home countries, and to try to build a basis for new lives for their children. It is about the efforts of our fellow human beings to survive, not for themselves, but for those who come after them.

Of a reported 39 (presumably Tamil) people on board a small vessel that sank en route from Sri Lanka to Western Australia, 27 were rescued. Three bodies were retrieved or sighted, and nine are missing, presumed drowned. The dead or missing include three boys aged 13, 14 and 15. The search for survivors has now ended.

The sinking of this asylum-seeker boat again raises vexed questions about who is responsible for the safety of life at sea in cases of boats presumed to be carrying refugee applicants. Responsibility under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea is unambiguous, and is not lessened even when the boats in distress are presumed to be asylum-seeker vessels.

In October 2001, Australian and Indonesian maritime safety and border protection authorities, to their mutual shame, played pass-the-parcel games with SIEV X, an overloaded and unsafe boat that departed from Sumatra and sank 30-odd hours later, in international waters but in Indonesia's search and rescue zone.

According to evidence tendered at the 2003 Senate Committee enquiry, neither country made serious attempts to locate or help the passengers who were clearly at risk; 353 people, mostly women and children, drowned. There are many unanswered questions. This huge tragedy continues to haunt Australians of conscience.

The latest tragic event is uncomplicated by issues of territorial seas, search and rescue zones, or responsibilities of those conducting border protection military operations. It happened in very remote international waters far to the west of Indonesia, to a boat on a direct ocean route to Australia, and in Australia's search and rescue zone.

The boat's distress call alerted nearby commercial shipping. Australia correctly sent out RAAF Orions to help search for survivors. The survivors are now being taken to the processing centre at Christmas Island. It appears that Australia is doing the right things here.

There is no evidence of people smugglers being involved. Peter Costello draws a long bow in presuming that smugglers provided the boat. It could have been a cooperative venture, a boat owned and sailed by local Tamil mariners. I do not know what purpose Costello thinks he serves with this provocative red herring.

Once they have recovered from their trauma, the survivors will face the processing of their claims for refugee status. One hopes that what they have endured, in the loss of 12 of their fellow voyagers (possibly family members), will help generate a mercifully humane and speedy process.

In the separate continuing dramas of the two groups of people refusing to disembark from rescue or transfer vessels at Indonesian ports, there are many complications to be sorted though, and many conflicting views on what is the right thing to do. But most of all, I feel relief that these people were not abandoned to die at sea.

It seems that proper safety of life at sea procedures were followed in both cases. This is a vast improvement on the barbarism of the Howard years, and I give Kevin Rudd public credit for it.

All human life is equally sacred, and the moral and legal obligations on mariners to save other mariners in distress, whatever the cause, is one of the things that allows us to call ourselves a civilised nation. We must never lose sight of those obligations again, no matter what the pressure.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of SIEV X. Tony will open an exhibition of paintings by WA artist Nathalie Haymann based on the sinking of SIEV X, 6.30–8.30 pm, 11 November, at Kidogo Arthouse, Bathers' Beach, Fishermans' Harbour, off Mews Road, Fremantle (on the beach). The exhibition will run from 11 to 24 November. Also, Carmen Lawrence will discuss with Tony his latest book on global warming, Crunch Time, in the Webb Lecture Theatre, University of Western Australia, at 6 pm on 10 November.

Topic tags: Peter Costello, boat people, refugees, asylum seekers, tamils, sri lanka, cocos island, siev x, border prote



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Existing comments

Never ever stop sounding the tocsin, Tony.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea must not be allowed to become an awkward obstacle to be circumvented by governments and officials.

It should be a flag held proudly aloft letting all those who venture onto the waters of the deep that they will be treated with compassion and humanity if they are ever in distress.

Sound the tocsin! Raise the flag of hope! We are all in this together.

Uncle Pat | 05 November 2009  

Tony's got it right this time. Anyway, who gives a toss if "people smugglers" were involved? Mr Costello's "people smuggler" could be a Tamil father's saviour. I heard on ABC Radio this morning that there have been"high level" talks between Australia and Sri Lanka about the prospect of accepting "unskilled Tamil workers" into Australia as an act of preferential mercy. This prospect was quickly quashed by immigration minister Senator Evans.

Claude Rigney | 05 November 2009  

As soon as 'asylum seekers' or 'people smugglers' become 'people other than us' the alarm bells should start ringing. Are we not fortunate that 'they' are not us? Isn't this one of the realisations that will help us to do the right thing by 'other people'? How many Good Samaritans would have rowed past?

Lorna Hannan | 05 November 2009  

Thousands (if not millions) of dollars are spent when Australian navy ships and aircraft respond to distress calls from round-the-world adventurers such as Tony Bullimore. It is a 'good news story' and we give ourselves a pat on the back for 'doing the right thing', for upholding the law of the sea.
How different is our response when desperate people take to the seas for very different reasons to those of 'adventurers'. They are escaping persecution in boats that may or may not be seaworthy - no safety equipment, no state-of-the-art navigation aids, no EPIRB's and certainly no sponsorship from global corporations. They are prepared to spend their savings, to risk the perils of the sea, to face the possibility of years in transit camps. There are no crowds waiting to welcome them at the quayside instead they are taken to a 'facility' to be 'processed'. To me, they are are the ones deserving of our admiration for their endurance and perseverance.

Joanna Elliott | 05 November 2009  

I give them enormous credit for brilliant rescues at sea and the safety of life at sea presumably driven by John Faulkner.

Where they did go wrong was not asking anyone on the Viking if they had refugee cards which would mean we could not legally off load them in Indonesia.

Something the unions grasped very quickly in both countries.

This am. Rudd is still whining about being tough on people smugglers but there are no people smugglers and we have never jailed one.

WE only jail the poor Indonesians for not people smuggling. I think it is encumbent on us all to be peolpe smugglers though if it means saving lives which makes me know that Abu Quessay was a contrived killer bought and paid for by us.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 November 2009  

A great analysis Tony. One day a Government will have the courage to properly investigate the horror of the SIEV X.It remains one of the worst maritime disasters that the region has seen. Compare the death toll to the Victorian bush fires. This response is much to be preferred and I agree that the Rudd Government has acted properly. However why Christmas island and what are we frightened of?

Alastair Nicholson | 05 November 2009  

Good on you Tony. Tragically Australians often ignore the harsh reality that faces those who have to run far and hard in order to survive. Keep reminding us of our obligations.

bronwyn | 05 November 2009  

Yes, this tragedy does haunt Australian's conscience. But the victims themselves were not entirely blameless. As you say, Tony, SIEV X, was an overloaded and unsafe boat. How any mother could gamble with her children's lives by taking them on that boat in the first place is beyond me.

Nathan Socci | 06 November 2009  

Nathan Socci, you might want to read my book on SIEV X? It records the many eyewitness accounts of how the victims were tricked, lied to, and finally forced at gunpoint by uniformed armed men onto this unsafe overcrowded boat. It takes an effort of imagination in comfortable Australia to comprehend how desperate and powerless were these homeless asylum-seekers in Indonesia. They were mostly women and children whose husbands were already in Australia interned or on temporary protection visas. They had run out of options. It is worth making an effort to understand their plight.

tony kevin | 06 November 2009  

I urge Nathan Socci to see the film, Hope in which he will find the answer to his question.

Bernadette Duffy | 06 November 2009  

Thanks for the response, Tony. Yes, I think I need a better understanding on this event.

Nathan Socci | 06 November 2009  

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