An effort to give posthumous dignity to 353 refugees who were seeking a better life but were killed in circumstances still not fully explained.

There are times when governments do their best to destroy belief in basic human decency but ordinary people respond in a manner to restore faith. This is a story about compassionate efforts to give posthumous dignity to hundreds who died horribly in circumstances yet to be fully explained.

Seeking asylum

In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard seemed to be in deep political trouble as elections approached. On August 24, a 20-metre wooden fishing boat loaded with 438 Afghans seeking asylum in Australia became stranded in international waters less than 150 km from the Australian-owned Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. On August 24, Rescue Coordination Centre (Australia) sent out a message asking ships in the vicinity to come to the assistance of the boat. The Norwegian-owned mv Tampa, en route to Singapore from Fremantle in Western Australia, being the closest to the site, proceeded to the assistance of the boat in difficulty.

Instead of sailing to Indonesia with the rescued passengers, Tampa sailed to Christmas Island. The government refused to give it permission to enter Australian territorial waters, threatening to arrest and prosecute the captain as a people smuggler if he did. On August 29, the captain, seriously concerned about the health and safety of the passengers, sailed defiantly into Australian waters. Canberra sent troops to board the Tampa and instruct its captain to return to the high seas. He refused, complaining that when he asked for food and medicines for the refugees, the Australians sent commandos instead. He was awarded Norway's highest civilian honour for his handling of the situation.

The controversy gravely dented Australia's reputation in Norway and Europe but harvested huge political dividends domestically when Howard declared that the Australian government will decide who comes to Australia and under what circumstances. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 played into the hands of a government exploiting popular fears of Muslim foreigners. Howard campaigned loudly on his border protection policy and handily won re-election.

During the campaign, another leaky and rickety boat, measuring 19.5x4 metres where even 150 people would be overcrowded, set sail for Christmas Island from Indonesia on October 18 with 421 passengers, mostly refugees from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It soon sank in stormy seas in the internationally designated Indonesian search and rescue zone but also within an Australian border protection surveillance area. An estimated 65 men, 142 women and 146 children died. An Indonesian boat rescued 44 survivors on October 20 and another was picked up 12 hours later.

SIEV X

The boat was described by Australian authorities as a Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle (SIEV). Retired Australian ambassador Tony Kevin, who investigated the incident on his own, added ‘X' in March 2002 and it has been known since as SIEV X.

In 2003, Steve Biddulph acting as a private citizen commenced work with the Uniting Church to build a memorial to the victims and survivors of SIEV X in Canberra, the capital. Opposition to the project was based on the two grounds of distaste at using the tragedy to score political points against the Howard Government, and the fact that the incident did not involve Australians and had not taken place in Australian territory. Supporters were distressed by and not prepared to accept that so many innocent lives heading for a better life in Australia should be lost with no public acknowledgment. Life is sacred. Refugees are human beings, not Untermenschen (lesser humans), deserving respect and dignity even in death.

A design competition involving 500 schools was won by Mitchel Donaldson, a 14-year-old Brisbane schoolboy. The memorial, spread over 400 metres of parkland along the lakeshore and nestled against Canberra's iconic hills, is made up of 353 white poles. (Poles to memorialise people and communities are part of Aboriginal culture, as can be seen in a display at the wonderful National Gallery of Art in Canberra.) Each pole represents one victim, with half-sized poles for the child victims who drowned. Every victim who could be identified has a pole bearing his or her name. The poles were individually hand decorated by schools, churches and community groups across the land. Some have touching messages from the schoolchildren, imagining, for example, what life in Australia would have been like for the child if only she had survived.

The memorial was erected temporarily on October 15, 2006 when 600 people raised their own and others' poles in the presence of a 2,000-strong crowd and national media. The permanent memorial was dedicated a year later with more than a thousand student and community artists. The Australian Capital Territory is ruled by the Labor Party which strongly supports the SIEV X Memorial and has committed to its location in Weston Park — appropriately, within sight of the waters of Lake Burley-Griffin. The Liberal Party is hostile both federally and in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

'Titanic of refugee boats'

Part of the memorial is the poles arranged in the dimensions of the doomed boat, which brings home very powerfully just how tiny the vessel must have been to be carrying so many people: “the Titanic of refugee boats.” The impact and scale of loss of life was an important criterion in choosing the design. The SIEV X survivors were brought to Australia and by all accounts have integrated well into their host society and become useful citizens.

Some Australians continue to describe the incident as an unsolved crime perpetrated by Indonesian authorities with Australian encouragement or connivance. Some of the survivors testified that a couple of military vessels had approached them with searchlights but sailed off without any attempt to rescue the struggling mass of bodies swimming desperately in the seas.

Several Australian MPs expressed scepticism during a Senate inquiry that Australian authorities could have remained unaware of the distressed plight of the boat for up to three days. Labor Senator John Faulkner (in)famously made a “licence to kill” speech in describing the role of Australian intelligence services who were engaged in efforts to disrupt people-smuggling activity. In opposition, Labor promised a royal commission into the tragedy on assuming office, but the promise has been quietly shelved.

As far as government policy is concerned, national security trumps human security and the responsibility to protect — promulgated, in an ironic coincidence, in the same year 2001 — is only to be enforced by the West against the rest. Its moral analogues clearly do not apply to frightened refugee seekers in distress on the high seas in the vicinity of Australian waters.

Australian complicity in the sinking or in the tardy rescue efforts seems far-fetched; a cock-up theory mostly wins out over conspiracies. Regardless, the true message is how the community was touched by the tragedy and decided to create a memorial on its own initiative, entirely by its own efforts, and totally at its own cost with no government help or handout. The impact of visiting the memorial is surprisingly poignant and moving. Visitors and delegations to Canberra should be encouraged to view the site and experience the spirit of human solidarity without borders and across cultures that it embodies. No clash of civilisations here, just a positive message of hope and compassion affirming that, government policies notwithstanding, Australia is not a community that will be defined by fear and greed.

(The writer is Director, Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation & Disarmament, ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy in Canberra.)

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