Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Australian connections to drowned asylum seekers

  • 21 October 2013

Saturday was the 12th anniversary of Australia's worst asylum seeker disaster. On 19 October 2001, 353 people, mostly women and children, drowned on the high seas trying to reach Australia in a small, dilapidated, grossly overloaded fishing boat that would later come to be known as Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) X. There were 45 who survived the sinking, of whom seven eventually settled in Australia. Another 23 disembarked before the vessel sunk; all are now living here.

SIEVX was the first major drowning incident involving asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat. It is likely that prior to this, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were other boats that sunk en route to Australia from Vietnam, but no passengers survived to tell the tale. And certainly none of the vessels travelling from Vietnam in that era carried anything like the numbers on SIEVX.

Of the more than 1000 boats that have attempted the journey to Australia over the last 17 years, there is only one asylum seeker boat that carried more passengers and that was the boat rescued by the MV Tampa in August 2001. The catalogue of terrible mass drowning events where scores of asylum seekers lost their lives begins with SIEVX.

There was a time, a little over four years ago, when the 353 deaths on SIEVX accounted for virtually all the asylum seeker deaths at sea. But since October 2009 it is estimated that another 1100 people have drowned attempting the treacherous journey by boat to Australia; the total death count now exceeds 1500.

Over the last 12 years there has been a monstrous 'othering' of people trying to enter Australia irregularly, and when they drown we are told that it is a human tragedy that has nothing to do with us; it happened a long way from our shores and is not our responsibility. But the people who travel on these boats are not strangers — they are often people with strong connections to Australia. More than 70 people who boarded SIEVX had family living here and, for many, taking the dangerous boat voyage was their only hope of reuniting with family.

In October 1999 the Federal Government introduced the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) policy which put family reunion years out of reach for refugees who arrived in our country irregularly. As a result increasing numbers of women and children took passage on people smuggling boats. I