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 know of 16 instances of people travelling alone or in family groups on SIEVX who were trying to reunite with other family members already here. When SIEVX foundered there were at least seven men living in Australia on TPVs whose entire families were washed away.
For those bereaved men whose families were annihilated, SIEVX was a weight too massive to shoulder and inflicted a wound too deep to heal. As survivor Sadeq Al Albodie wrote: 'We continue to suffer. The tragedy was too big. We have seen the deaths of children and women parading between the waves. Our lives have been severely narrowed by what happened to us.'
As testament to what the human spirit can survive, some of the bereaved husbands and fathers have married again and now have young families. The loss they endured is always present — it is not something they will ever recover from, but their lives go on. So there are now young kids growing up in Australia, who were born here and speak with Australian accents, who had brothers and sisters who drowned on SIEVX.
SIEVX is not only a huge Australian tragedy, it is also an international one. Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister in 2001 when news broke of the sinking, was unmoved by the plight of the survivors. Ruddock refused to provide visas to the 45 survivors and only accepted seven into Australia because to do otherwise, he claimed, would encourage more people to embark on similar dangerous journeys.
Survivors were split up and resettled in far away countries including Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. While all of the 23 'early survivors' who departed SIEVX the day before it sunk were eventually settled in Australia it was only after a gruelling wait of many years, despite the fact that most had family connections here.
There were other cruelties meted out by our government to the survivors and bereaved of SIEVX. Sondos Ismail was travelling on SIEVX with her three young daughters, Eman, Fatima and Zhara to join her husband Ahmed Al Zalimi in Australia. Sondos survived the sinking but her three girls drowned. Her husband was unable to go to her because of the restrictions of his temporary protection visa — if he left the country he was not permitted to return and Philip Ruddock refused to bend the rules to help the couple.
Despite pleas to the government, five months passed before husband and wife were reunited in Australia. And even then their suffering at the hands of our authorities continued. In 2003 it was reported that Ahmed would be returned to Iraq when his visa expired. Thanks to a concerted community campaign this did not eventuate, but the needless pressure exerted on the couple who had already suffered so much, could not have assisted their recovery.
When Ahmed was interviewed in July this year — the first time he had spoken publicly about SIEVX — he made it clear that the tragedy continues to torment his family: 'It is very very difficult to talk about there is a lot I can't say, my wife is still so depressed and it's been 12 years.'
Australia's response to the SIEVX sinking is in stark contrast to how the Italian government responded to the recent tragedy off Lampedusa, where a similar huge number of asylum seekers lost their lives. Italy declared a day of national mourning and is reportedly providing state funerals for all 359 victims.
But despite our Government's hard attitude to SIEVX survivors and bereaved family members, SIEVX has not gone unmourned here. Spearheaded by psychologist and writer, Steve Biddulph, and a group of friends based in the Uniting Church, concerned people across Australia came together and brought into existence a strikingly beautiful and haunting memorial of poles that snake along the shores of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin — one pole for each life lost on SIEVX, hand-painted by school children, community groups and bereaved fathers of the victims.
This memorial stands as a virtual cemetery for the 353 souls lost on SIEVX whose bodies were never retrieved from the ocean, and provides a place where those who lost loved ones can go to mourn their dead.
In Canberra in 2006, bereaved husband and father Mohammad Hashim Al Ghazzi spoke of how important the memorial was to him: 'It is like there is a ceremony for our family. I feel their souls will go there, to this beautiful park in Canberra. I will never forget the support of so many Australians in making this memorial.'
Australians have responded to SIEVX in other ways, creating songs, paintings and other art which help to keep the memory of this terrible incident alive in public consciousness.
A popular pastime shared by many is to trace our family histories back to find the earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia — some are proud to discover a convict, some a digger on the goldfields, others a penniless immigrant who made good. It is not hard to imagine that in years to come descendants of the current wave of asylum seekers will trace their ancestry and wear it as a badge of honour when they find that the first of their family to arrive in this country came on a SIEV.
In 2001 Prime Minister Howard tried to distance Australia from SIEVX by repeatedly referring to the sinking as having occurred in 'Indonesian waters'. If there was any doubt in 2001 that SIEVX was an Australian tragedy, in 2013 there is none. Relatives of the dead live among us, their children go to Australian schools and are growing up as Australians; an inspiring memorial, honouring all the lives lost, has been built in our nation's capital.
But the question that continues to haunt many of us is this — if the people who took passage on these sunken boats were Australian, would we have done more to try and save them? How many of those 1500 lives lost over the last 12 years could have been saved?
Australian connections to SIEVX passengers
SIEVX Survivor accounts
Marg Hutton is an independent researcher and creator of the website sievx.com, a comprehensive archive of published material on the SIEVX tragedy which has been online since 2002. This article was originally published on 20 October 2013.
Winter beach image from Shutterstock