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In the shadow of SIEV-X

  • 01 November 2021
  Two decades ago, an Indonesian vessel given the name SIEV X sank with loss of life that should have caused a flood of tears and a surge of compassion. Instead of being seen in humanitarian terms, the deaths of 353 people became a form of rich political capital, placed in the bank of opportunism to be amortised at a federal election.

The Howard government had already ushered in a new chapter in Australian border policy in sending SAS troops to repel the 438 individuals on the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, in August 2001. Refusing to let the ship dock at an Australian port in accordance with international maritime law and the Refugee Convention became a clarion call for border protection advocates. 

In many respects, the SIEV X remains less known. But it was no less significant in firming up the proposition that those making their way to Australia to seek sanctuary, and those aiding them doing so, were to be demonised and criminalised. The vessel itself, originally overladen with 397 asylum seekers, sank in the waters between Java and Christmas Island on October 19, 2001. A good number of those on board hoped to eventually reunite with partners on Temporary Protection Visas in Australia.

Many perished instantly; a hundred clung on for the next 20 hours, succumbing to exhaustion. 44 were found alive by two Indonesian fishing boats. The location of the sinking was important for taking place in Indonesia’s area of search-and-rescue responsibility. But, contentiously, it also took place in Australia’s aerial border protection surveillance zone.

On October 23, news of the drownings made it into the public domain. Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley suggested that this episode, were it to be confirmed, pointed to ‘the failure of policy.’ This failure was due to a lack of agreement between Indonesia and Australia on how to prevent people getting on leaky boats to seek passage. This was hardly a glowing endorsement of the right to asylum, and Beazley, in subsequent clarifying remarks, insisted that he was not blaming Howard but the ‘appalling evil’ of the people smuggling trade.

Howard, in turn, suggested that his opponent was profiting from the drownings for political advantage. That he would make such a ‘despicable’ slur showed Beazley’s ‘opportunist political character’. The debate duly descended, and Howard, in turn, could insinuate that the SIEV X was an example of how Australia needed to police borders with ever greater vigilance.