Australian govt distances itself from ‘children overboard’

Australia’s Home Affairs Minister has continued to stress that this situation should not be politicised, wary of the political repercussions of this latest people trafficking incident. It all stems from several tragedies off Australia’s north coast in 2001, when the last large-scale arrival of asylum seekers occured – swinging whole elections.

Speaker: Bob Debus, Australia’s Home Affairs minister; John Howard, former Australian prime minister; Amal Bazry, Iraqi survivor of the SIEV X sinking of 2001

SEN LAM: Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Bob Debus has continued to stress that this situation should not be politicised.

BOB DEBUS, AUSTRALIA’S HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER: I am not going to allow this particular incident to be politicised as some incidents have been politicised in the past, often to our national shame.

SEN LAM: The Australian government has every reason to be afraid of the political repercussions of this latest people trafficking incident. A major tragedy off Australia’s north coast in 2001, when the last large arrival of asylum seekers occured, swung whole elections as Adam Connors reports.

ADAM CONNORS: It was the last months of the 2001 Australian Government federal election – an election fought in a tough new post-September 11 atmosphere of national security and immigration. During the month of August and leading up to the November election, asylum seekers arriving by boat on islands off the Australian mainland rose suddenly, making the issue a hot election topic.

JOHN HOWARD: We have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations, but we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

ADAM CONNORS: By June 2001, the Government and its Navy and protectorate services were intercepting barely seaworthy Indonesian fishing boats carrying between 200 and 400 asylum seekers each, off Christmas and Ashmore Islands – many from war-torn Afghanistan and the Middle East.

It was one of these vessels – a 20m wooden fishing boat carrying 438 mainly Afghan refugees – that the Norwegian cargo ship, the MV ‘Tampa’, rescued on August 26, 2001, and was subsequently stormed by Australian troops. The captain had refused Australia’s order to redirect the ship with the sick refugees back to international waters. Australia threatened him with people-smuggling charges for his humanitarian gesture.

By September, there were so many boats that they were coined with an acronym by the Australian Government Defence Force: SIEV – suspects illegal entry vessel, or SIEV – and usually given a number starting from 1. On October 7, the then immigration minister, Peter Reith, announced that another boat load of 223 people – SIEV 4 – was intercepted, and they had proof that children had been thrown overboard. Nearly one month out of the election the Prime Minister responded.

JOHN HOWARD: They’re not coming to the Australian mainland, that’s one choice that is not available, and the behaviour of a number of these people, particularly those involving throwing their children overboard. I mean, I can’t imagine how a genuine refugee would ever do that. And anybody who would endanger the lives of their children in that kind of way I find it hard to accept. I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia. I really don’t.

ADAM CONNORS: It was under this atmosphere that the SIEV X sailed – ‘X’ because the 19.5 metre boat had no name from Indonesia, and with approximately 421 people on board, on October 18, 2001. Amal Bazri was one of them, and she told SBS Radio in 2006 of the images that still haunt her.

AMAL BAZRY: I’m from Iraq and I live in Melbourne now with my son and my husband. I have been on this boat, SIEV X, with my group around 420, maybe more, people. Our boat sunk on the way to Christmas Island. And I know most the people, women, children, especially the children, I have nice relationship with them. I talk with them very nice about Australia. All these children they died on the ocean. I feel so sorry for them dreams. When I saw them dreams in the ocean I say, “Oh, God. Them dreams also die.”

ADAM CONNORS: Of the more than 400 that began the journey, 353 died, approximately 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. The worst maritime disaster in Australian waters since World War II.