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When the atrocities of World War II and the Nazi holocaust occurred the world vowed to never allow such a travesty to happen again. In fact, the original refugee convention was drawn up for the very purpose of accommodating the many refugees generated from the impact of the war.
Over 72 years ago in 1939 a ship dubbed the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 937 Jewish refugees landed on the shores of Florida, USA and was cruelly denied entry and turned back. Nearly every single Jewish person on that boat died at the hands of the Nazis. The substantial response to this would be horror and disbelief – and maybe even indignation at the government for turning these people back. I’m sure if this were to happen in this day and age we would offer them asylum, welcome them within our borders, our communities and our hearts. But most importantly, offer them protection from the persecution they are fleeing from – by simply offering them a country to harbour in.
This is however, not the case in Australia, and it has been so now for 10 very long years. With our old but not ageing policy of mandatory detention Australia without exception detains every maritime arrival to come within our shores. And is now attempting to send many people back to the places they took such drastic means to escape from. They send them back to countries where they are persecuted by the government, by the Taliban and by civil unrest. To situations where they face ethnic, racial and religious genocide.
Today Australia marks the 1 year anniversary of the Christmas Island boat crash tragedy. A wooden boat – SIEV 221 - carrying approximately a 100 asylum seekers who attempted to sail to Australia, sailing towards what they thought would be a country to show fundamental humanity. The boat suffered an engine malfunction and was thrust upon the rocks of the Christmas Island limestone shores. Locals were roused at 6am by the cries for help from people plunged into the water and tried desperately to assist throwing life jackets into the ocean. 45 minutes after the alarm was raised Customs crew and the defence force attempted to retrieve people on inflatable boats. 41 were saved but the death toll lies at 50. The scene was marred by the death, fear and hopelessness of those struggling in the water. “Witness Phillip Stewart, said he had seen a woman on the rocks who was swept into the sea — and he did not see her again. Another witness Kamar Ismail, 44, had said he had seen a father holding a child shortly before the boat crashed. Once the boat crashed, he said he couldn’t see them anymore. Others report that before the boat crashed, they saw people praying. And then suddenly a wave took them, crashing the boat into the cliff face.¹
“There are dead babies, dead women and dead children in the water. The swell is unbelievably big,”¹
Mourners today who commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy include a man who lost his wife and children, and children who have lost both their parents. This was an incomprehensible tragedy, one where mothers clung to their children whilst drowning and infants whose lives hadn’t even begun were ended so suddenly as they were left to the merciless depths of the ocean as they drowned to death.
A shadow resides upon this maritime incident as it is one of many in Australia’s dark tradition of allowing asylum seekers to drown.
“Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokeswoman Pamela Curr said border patrol knew this boat was coming. Ms Curr said the Government knew the number of people on board before the rescue effort was complete and local contacts told her bodies area still out on the water.They knew, Search and Rescue had intelligence from Indonesia-they knew this boat was coming. They knew how many people were on it so why weren’t they there to meet them? There are three metre swells out there and there is a cyclone brewing, why weren’t they there to meet them?”¹
Tampa The truth of the matter is, that this has been going on for 10 years now. On the 26th of August 2001, a Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from a sinking boat just off Christmas Island. Prime minister John Howard refused entry of the Tampa onto Australian shores on the basis of border security. “According to the Tampa‘s first mate, at least 100 of the asylum seekers had diarrhoea and more than 10 were unconscious from dehydration at any one time.”² The survivors were taken to Nauru island and New Zealand.² The Tampa incident was the beginning of the epidemic of border security and the frenzy around restricting marital arrivals.
SIEV X On 19 October 2001 the SIEV X carrying 421 asylum seekers fleeing persecution began to sink. 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned when the boat they were all passengers of, SIEV X sank into the ocean. Survivors reported seeing two military boats who shined their lights on the wreckage but restarted their engines and sailed away, the Australian government and its People Smuggling Task Force had received various reports about the ship and its imminent distress and inhumanely decided not to act upon it. “One survivor gave the following account:
“I boarded the boat with 15 other members of my family. Nine drowned and six survived. We clung on to a wooden plank for 20 hours, drifting in the water.
Something I witnessed left a very strong impression: a baby with its umbilical cord still attached to the mother was amongst those who drowned. There were 150 children on board – only four are still alive.”²
SIEV 10 “On the 8th of November 2001, the SIEV 10 caught fire during its interception by the Australian Navy 24 miles off Christmas Island and everyone on the boat was forced into the water. Two women, 55 year old Nurjan Hussaini and 20 year old Fatima Husseini, drowned. A refugee advocate told the inquiry:
“…one was a young woman, pregnant with her first child. I have witnesses who say that she was frightened of jumping into the water, she was terrified. She and her husband stood and held hands and then finally jumped together. When they hit the water they were separated and she was subsequently found not breathing.”
“Another survivor reports how the naval boats “were right there but they could not do anything because according to them they were basically waiting for the orders to be received. It was nearly dark, at the dark they received their orders and they decided to save us.”²
The asylum seekers from SIEV 10 were taken to Nauru for processing.²
Other maritime interceptions:
SIEV 4 SIEV 4 or as it’s otherwise known ‘children overboard’ was intercepted on the 6 October 2001 whilst carrying 223 people, including 76 children. The navy was ordered to send out warning signals, it fired gunshots into the air every 3 minutes including shots from a 50 cal machine gun…Ali Alsaai, who was on the boat, told the Nine Network’s Sunday program:
“It was during the night. We didn’t know which way the shooting was going but the shooting was too much. [I was] vomiting, very scared, very sick and my daughter…too; my daughter very vomiting.”²
Seaman Laura Whittle who fired some of the shots and who witnessed a man holding out his daughter to navy personnel told a magazine:
“We could see their faces and the screaming was just horrific. They were yelling, ‘help us!’ and, at one point, it was more deafening than the 50 calibre machine gun.”
“When I saw that man with his daughter it just made my heart melt. The girl had on a pink jacket and she had curly hair, and it was like the father was saying, ‘Take her, take her.’ That was the gesture he was making. It was like ‘Give her a chance’ and it was then that I moved out of work mode and the humanity began to kick in. I thought he just wants to save his little girl. He wants her to have a better life…That’s when I started to think so differently, ‘How could somebody be so desperate to head towards the unknown with their children on a rickety boat and to put everything at risk?’ They must have been coming from something terrible and it made me think, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t how things should be.”²
The asylum seekers on SIEV 4, were told they were being taken to Sydney Australia but were instead transferred without their knowledge to Christmas Island and Manus Island.
SIEV 5 12 October 2001, “a boat carrying 238 Afghani asylum seekers reached Ashmore Island…The asylum seekers had run out of food, and water had been rationed from two days into the journey. A young baby on the boat had died. Hours before reaching the island, a woman on board had given birth to her third child. In celebration of reaching land, the mother called her newborn child Ashmorey…Shortly after reaching land, they saw the Navy frigate Warramunga. But instead of taking the asylum seekers to the mainland, the Navy kept them on their boat for five days while the prime minister and some of his closest advisers deliberated on their fate…when it intercepted SIEV 5, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith told the Senate Inquiry:
“We received new instructions which were to, where possible, intercept, board and to return the vessel to Indonesia.”
A man who was on board the boat told:
“The navy people came in out boat and said, ‘We are taking you to the refugee camp,’ but they deceived us. They separated the families from singles and transferred families to their Navy ship. Then they asked all the singles to come down inside the boat. We requested them it is not possible for 160 persons to come together in a place, which is enough only for 40 persons. They said, ‘Only for five minutes, we want to tell something to you.’ So all the 160 passengers came down inside the boat, some sat on each other, some were standing. They kept us down by force for two days where the people cannot breathe, eat or sleep because there was not enough oxygen and there was much smoke of engine. Many people fainted. Each who fainted was taken to upside of the boat like a dead body then Navy people poured water on his face or injected him to become conscious and after he was conscious threw him down in the same tight and smelly place.”
Two days later, the asylum seekers were told they were almost back in Indonesia and that the families had 10 minutes to get off the Warramunga and back on the boat with the single men.”²
SIEV 6 Sank after being intercepted by HMAS on the 19th of October 2001 carrying 227 passengers. Officials were ordered to tug the boat into international waters and leave them there, the boat sunk however before they could reach them and eventually all passengers were transferred to Nauru for processing.²
SIEV 7 SIEV 7 “carrying 215 men, women and children, was intercepted by the HMAS Bunbury and escorted to Ashmor Lagoon. There were held for almost a week under open skies without being able to bathe and many developed conjunctivitis and irritated skin…HMAS Arunta arrived to escort the boat back to Indonesia. When told they would be returned, some people jumped overboard whilst others doused themselves with fuel and damaged the boat. Fearing they would be overpowered, naval personnel used batons and capsicum spray on the asylum seekers…The asylum seekers were left 300 ms from Rote Island in Indonesia.”²
¹Alison Rehn. Now 50 feared dead after asylum boat crashes off Christmas Island. The Daily Telegraph, December 15, 2010
²Linda Briskman, Susie Latham, Chris Goddard. Human Rights Overboard. 2008. Scribe. Australia.
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