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Remember SIEV X before waging war on boat people


Prime Minister Julia Gillard has invited people to say what they feel on the issue of how Australia should manage its borders, 'free of any sense of self-censorship or political correctness'. In contributing to what is likely to be a debate dominated by xenophobic voices, I would like to recall to readers what happened when an Australian Government last instructed the Australian Defence Force to vigorously deter and repel asylum-seeker boats.

On 2 September 2001, John Howard announced that he had ordered Australia's defence force to mount 'saturation surveillance' of international waters to Australia's north, as part of a military operation to repel and deter unauthorised asylum-seeker boats.

Some of the history of Operation Relex is set out in David Marr and Marian Wilkinson's book Dark Victory, and some in my book A Certain Maritime Incident: the Sinking of SIEV X. Much of it sits unread in the bulky Hansards and written testimonies submitted to the 2002 Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident, evidence which was heavily abbreviated in the Committee's published report. Much of the history remains secret.

Many Australians have forgotten what happened. In essence, time-hallowed customary maritime laws regulating Safety of Life at Sea were quietly abandoned by Canberra's maritime safety authorities, in the case of boats deemed to be attempting unauthorised voyages. A two-tiered system of maritime safety resulted: one code of practice for 'legitimate' mariners, and a harsher code for boat people, with vicious consequences.

Firstly, there was an increased risk of loss of asylum-seeker life at sea. There were many deaths, which could and should have been avoided, on some intercepted boats and finally on the boat that failed to arrive, SIEV X.

Secondly, there was progressive brutalisation and demoralisation of ADF culture, as it succumbed to political pressure from Canberra to set aside its lawful protocols and procedures for aiding people in distress at sea.

What emerges from the record is a developing operational culture, flowing from the top of civilian and military chains of command, of systematic anger and contempt for boat people.

ADF personnel were under orders to take control of rescued or intercepted boats, to keep the passengers on board their own boats, and to try to send them back to Indonesia by force. The passengers responded with attempts to disable or even sink their boats at the time of interception or rescue, so that they could not be forced back to Indonesia. The ADF command, on seeing this, responded with more hostility.

There were bizarre and distressing events.

One naval frigate commander was instructed by telephone from shore during an interception of a SIEV ('suspected illegal entry vessel') near Christmas Island not to be 'suckered' by the people on board into a safety-of-life-at-sea situation. Having taken control of the boat, the same commander — finding the steering gear wrecked — performed emergency repairs and directed the boat to return to Indonesia.

He followed, unobserved. When the boat stopped, unable to proceed, he rescued the people. He was instructed to keep them on board their disabled boat while he towed it in a circular path, as Canberra ruminated what to do. After 22 hours of this, the boat foundered without warning.

The passengers were saved in an emergency rescue operation. People who could not swim were ordered to don life vests and jump into the sea, to be rescued by ADF crew in waiting rubber dinghies. One female sailor on board the frigate was so distressed by the panic of children struggling in the water that she spontaneously dived from the high deck to help them.

Boats intercepted at Ashmore Reef were often left for days interned in the waters of the reef, their passengers broiling under a hot sun. It's hard to know whether this was for legitimate operational reasons, or deliberately punitive. One boat caught fire and sank, for reasons that are unclear. Two male asylum-seekers drowned during the subsequent rescue operation. A pregnant woman in another interned boat suffered serious medical complications for days, but was left unassisted.

One ADF commander exercised a combination of force and guile to return a boat to Indonesia: he promised passengers on an intercepted SIEV safe passage to Australia. On the strength of this promise, the male passengers were by agreement locked in the SIEV's hold and the women and children allowed onto the Australian vessel. The SIEV was then towed overnight at high speed back to Indonesia, where it was abandoned in shallow waters not far from shore. It was later reported that some passengers drowned while trying to wade to shore.

The despairing rage of the male passengers on finding how they had been deceived was filmed by somebody on board the navy vessel: this film later found its way onto ABC TV.

In such ways, Operation Relex degenerated quickly into a war against boat people. The written testimony of some of the Australian personnel involved is quite disturbing. The ADF was being conditioned to brutality.

There were protests. One senior naval reserve commander, a hospital psychiatrist in civilian life, withdrew from his ship in Darwin in early November and issued a media statement, to the effect that what the ADF was doing in the seas north of Australia was 'morally wrong and despicable'.

Another ADF person compared conditions on board ships taking boat people to Nauru as 'like a slave ship'. A very senior retired admiral deplored the loss of autonomy and discretion to naval commanders in responding to safety of life at sea incidents.

The period ended dramatically. Defence force P3-C Orion surveillance aircraft flew over the sinking location of SIEV X, a boat on which 353 people perished on 19 October 2001. They had no instructions to look for, or even accidentally to see, any survivors or wreckage. The mission was automatic data collection.

The boat had been expected, and when it failed to appear near Christmas Island, it was assumed to have turned back. There are credible survivor reports of seeing or hearing a big white plane overhead; but the aircraft crew saw nothing. Shortly afterwards, the boats stopped coming.

We should study those years: we should not contemplate going back to them. Whatever course of action the Prime Minister may decide on after testing public opinion, it should not involve any return to the former harsh military strategies of border protection.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of A Certain Maritime Incident, about the fate of the Indonesian fishing boat SIEV X.

Topic tags: asylum seekers, boat people, siev x, A Certain Maritime Incident, Operation Relex, Dark Victory



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Existing comments

Most nations in the world have extensive education systems, so that they can draw all the skilled their economies and societies need from among their own people.

Australia does not; since early in the Howard regime, Australia has been cadging on the education expenditure of other nations; we call it our "skilled migration" programme.

Meanwhile, we have large and growing pools of untrained and therefore unemployable people, with nothing to do but consume drugs and have children, whose role models are, of course, their parents.

Suppose, instead, Australia educated its own people so as to do away with any need for a skilled migration programme?

Its underclass of permanently unemployed families would disappear, and the ongoing drain on public expenditure would be replaced with a productive workforce and nation.

There'd be ample places for asylum seekers; remember, people who have been rejected by their own nations are more likely to wholeheartedly embrace the nation that welcomes them in, gives them refuge.

This lesson may be drawn from observing the immigrant experience of the USA, its latterday adoption of the "scorched earth" ideology of neoliberalism notwithstanding.

David Arthur | 06 July 2010  

"say what they feel" What a way to find out from the Australian populaton the best way to ensure border protection!

Would the PM use the same approach about taxation? About going to war? About universal health insurance?
If there was ever a of case dog whistle politics the use of the term "border protection" is a prime example. Every nation state has the right to protect itself against invasion. But in the current context it sends a special message (a dog whistle) to the xenophobes of all colours. "Keep out by whatever means boat people."
It doesn't alert the xenophobes to those asylum seekers who come by plane. Their quiet entry through a migration checking point does not have the drama of leaky boats steaming towards Australia's shores.
I write this before the PM makes her "border protection" policy statement.
I want it to be a policy that makes it impossible for Australian defence forces to return to the practices outlined by Tony Kevin.
I am not optimistic. There is an election coming up and every drug available in the spin doctors' bag of tricks will be used to sedate the feelings of deliberately agitated minorities.

Uncle Pat | 06 July 2010  

Tonie Kevin implies (probably correctly) that xenophobes will have undue influence on policies about boat people.

But we cannot altogether blame the parties. With 'rusted-on' voters being close to evenly divided, it is often possible that single-issue people will decide the outcome of an election. Party tacticians are well aware of this factor and fashion policies accordingly.

To help eliminate such distortions it would be beneficial if all parties cooperated and agreed on a joint policy on boat people and similar issues. And by so doing remove them from election tactics.

Bob Corcoran | 06 July 2010  

Where does this leave Catholic superstar Tony Abbott?

Jim Jones | 06 July 2010  

Thank you for keeping the memory alive Kevin

steve sinn | 06 July 2010  

Tony, if only Julia Gillard would ensure that your article informed the public debate that she has invited.

Your last para warrants repeating:
"We should study those years: we should not contemplate going back to them. Whatever course of action the Prime Minister may decide on after testing public opinion, it should not involve any return to the former harsh military strategies of border protection."

The fear of boat people may or may not be racist but it is certainly driven by an ill-informed emotional response encouraged by right wing politicians. The community needs to hear the real stories, including facts that have been suppressed for too long, such as the facts that plane arrivals (visa over-stayers) comprise the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers of whom a much lower proportion prove to be genuine refugees. The focus on boat people is using the image of boats as a political device to stir emotional responses; it is also demonising the most vulnerable.

Many of us were hoping that Julia Gillard is not just another pragmatist doing what it takes to stay in government without regard for the responsibilities of leadership, i.e. smart strategic leadership that reinforces good values and changes community thinking. I have just a little hope left.

Peter Johnstone | 06 July 2010  

Public opinion was tested and the 'public' responded by jumping into the sea to save these desperate souls. There is no more 'public opinion' needed, Miss Prime Minister ... get on with the job of saving as many asylum seekers as is humanly possible.

Greig WIlliams | 06 July 2010  

I wrote this essay before seeing the Prime Minister's Lowy speech today, which can be read in full at

I think that her clear and reasoned rebuttal of the Coalition's 'turn the boats back' slogan is reassuring, in terms of the concerns expressed in my essay. It does seem that the new PM has learned the lessons of Operation Relex and the tragedy of SIEV X. I think it is important to give her full credit for this, in the debate that will continue on her proposals as a whole. She has taken a risk opening up this debate as she did at Lowy: full marks to her for her courage. It is time for people more in the middle, as well as towards the extremities of this argument, to express their views. I think she has today conscientiously tried to steer this debate on constructive lines.

tony kevin | 06 July 2010  

Re PM Gillard’s announcement this afternoon: So Tamil and Hazara asylum seekers will no longer need to take the hazardous boat journey. They could just go overland from West Timor into Timor Leste and ask for the same treatment as those who have risked a boat journey to Australia – transparent processing, humane detention, and prompt placement in Australia or New Zealand once a refugee claim is established.

Frank Brennan SJ | 06 July 2010  

I love it! Julia Gillard gives the politically correct do-gooder mafia nightmares. Her job is to look after Australia’s interest first and I think she tries to do that.

Beat Odermatt | 06 July 2010  

Once again we have to put up with this issue being discussed, again, and again and at the end of the day we are still going to remain divided on the issue of asylum seekers.
We travel all around the world and say to everyone how beautiful other countries are and how warm and friendly the people were, but, they must remain in their country and not come to ours, particularly on boats.
We fight foreign wars in the name of freedom but won't allow the desperate people fleeing those war torn countries to come on board??????????????
What is it that people are afraid of about boat people?

If I was that desperate I had to flee the country of my birth in a boat with a hundred others and landed on another country's shores, I sure as hell would want some compassion!

rhonda danylenko | 06 July 2010  

Could Kevin please give us his detailed plan for dealing humanely with "boat people"?

Claude Rigney | 06 July 2010  

And with Gillard's statement today that we don't turn away people and let them drown I feel some relief but not much.

She is still pandering to the lowest form of slugs and breaching Australian and international law with her ludicrous dog whistling and policy.

I like to think I have helped to break many stories of abuse over the years, including SIEVX with Tony, Marg, Kay, Kate (aka Charles) Mary Dagmar, Helen and others who dug and dug until some truths were revealed.

Like the fact that the DIC's knew about the killer Quessay over 18 months prior and did nothing, that they watched him for months and did nothing, that they watched the SIEVX boat for weeks and did nothing, that they covered up the vast amount of information regarding passengers and when the boat left.

It was the only one beside the TAMPA people who were overloaded and left to sink after being loaded at gunpoint.

The rest were not loaded by force and the loads were much smaller.

This country is a laughing stock as our leaders whine on and on about who is the meanest to refugees.

Tony, I told you she was useless.

Marilyn Shepherd | 06 July 2010  

Frank what about the nice, open and transparent jails we have in Indonesia and what about the Iraqis, Palestinians and Iranians and others who land there?

Honest to god, what a stupid country this is.

Marilyn Shepherd | 06 July 2010  

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