Disturbing questions

In October 2001, 353 people, mostly women and children, drowned in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Indonesia. Their desperate attempt to seek refugee protection in Australia ended tragically when their overcrowded boat sank on its way to Christmas Island. In his account of the SIEV X humanitarian disaster, Tony Kevin tells a far more disturbing story of Australia’s callous activities to deter asylum seekers from coming to our shores.

Predictably, Australian government officials, led by our prime minister, disassociated Australia from the mass drowning, and any responsibility. The tragedy was used to affirm Australia’s hard-line border protection policies. However, the story—as told through anguished survivors and grief-stricken families waiting for their loved ones here in Australia—could not be suppressed. The grief of families, expressed at a memorial service held in a park in Reservoir soon after the disaster, stays with me today. It is hard to forget the smiling faces in the precious photos of their children who had perished—all they had left of their desperate attempts to help their families escape war and persecution.

For Kevin, a former Australian diplomat and senior government bureaucrat, his own disquiet about the circumstances of the tragedy became a passionate search for the truth. His exposure of Australian knowledge, involvement and cover-up of the SIEV X story is documented in this extensively researched and unsettling book.

Kevin places the story of the SIEV X, its departure, doomed journey and aftermath, in the context of

Australia’s antagonistic climate and policies towards refugees. There were other ‘certain maritime incidents’ including Tampa and the children-overboard affair, that assaulted the rights of asylum seekers, vilified them as ‘illegals’ and twisted the truth to create a hostile public perception of their lawful attempts to seek asylum. The voyage of the SIEV X occurred in the midst of Australia’s shadowy activities under Operation Relex, a contentious, offshore program designed to deter asylum seekers from entering Australian waters. Evidence of prior Australian knowledge and surveillance of the boat and its voyage towards Australia is provided in detail. It makes the official government responses hard to swallow. From the outset, senior government officials and bureaucrats issued inconsistent and misleading information and resisted attempts, such as the Senate Inquiry, to ensure a thorough and transparent investigation.

There are many disturbing questions raised in this determined effort to get to the truth of the SIEV X tragedy. Did Australia share some responsibility? Could we have done more to prevent it? What (and who) are we prepared to sacrifice in the name of border protection? As the author laments, until there is a comprehensive, independent and transparent inquiry, questions about our government’s credibility and conduct in this affair continue to haunt us. So too does the unresolved grief of family and survivors.
The recent conviction in a Brisbane court of Khaleed Daoed, a 37-year-old Iraqi man, for his role in organising the doomed SIEV X voyage, only renews questions about Australia’s role in this tragedy.  

A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of the SIEV X,Tony Kevin.
Scribe Publications, 2004. isbn 1 920 76921 8, rrp $32.95

Louise Crowe is a researcher with a special interest in refugee and asylum seeker issues.



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