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Twenty years after it sank, there is still a terrible mystery about what happened to the asylum seekers aboard SIEV X and why they were not rescued by Australia. By Toni Hassan.

What happened to the asylum seekers aboard SIEV X?

The poles at Kurrajong Point on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra commemorating those who drowned when SIEV X sank.
Credit: AAP / Supplied

Wilma Davidson is again at Weston Park, at the edge of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. From the boot of her car she gets rags, palettes, paints and brushes. She grabs a sun hat.

“For five years now these things have lived in my car,” she says. “And I have a couple of bottles of water, which I check beforehand because there are no taps down by the lake.”

Along a gentle slope by the lake are hundreds of white wooden poles. They represent the 353 people who drowned when their boat carrying about 400 asylum seekers – SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X) – capsized somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island on October 19, 2001.

The poles stand in the shadow of Parliament House, a ghostly resurrection of the 19-metre fishing vessel that had been carrying the asylum seekers, predominantly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Australia.

Each pole has written on it whatever information can be found about the dead, which is frankly not much. Most bear the inscription “unknown mother”, “unknown child” or “unknown father”. A few carry the names and ages of people whose family members were waiting for them in Australia.

In a capital full of grand symbolic gestures, this memorial is different, not only for its modesty but the fact that it relies on no state funds or grants for insurance and maintenance. No legal entity is responsible for it.

Davidson is among a handful of volunteers, memorial keepers, who turn up week after week to maintain and repair the artwork on the poles, originally created by young people from all around Australia.

“I’m not a great artist, I’m not a conservator, but I want to do as best I can to honour what these people have already done,” Davidson says. “I suppose what I see is love.”

The idea for the SIEV X memorial was developed by a small group led by author and psychologist Steve Biddulph, the Reverend Rod Horsfield and artist Beth Gibbings. With a teaching kit, they reached out to 3000 high schools to have students design and decorate the poles in memory of the victims: 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.

“The small poles represent children, the large ones adults. And they march ashore, spirit-like, as if they had finally made it to our welcoming arms,” Biddulph says. “It was the biggest and bravest thing many of us have ever done.”

What is memorialised in public space, recalled or suppressed, is full of agendas and intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony. This was brave because, then as now, memorialising and remembering what governments don’t want you to is a form of subversive political action. It inevitably relies on donations of time and money.

“We provided a truck and collected poles from schools all down the east coast from Brisbane and up from Tasmania in my own van. I remember a teacher with three kids and a pole somehow squeezed in their Toyota Corolla,” Biddulph says. “They were trucked to a secret location and stored outside Canberra until a year later, in September 2007, when they were allowed to go in the ground.

“We had really great support from then Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, and ACT Parks, that controlled the land. But the Commonwealth-run National Capital Authority took more persuading, and John Howard was reportedly incensed.”

What really happened to SIEV X continues to be shrouded in secrecy. We know the boat sank in international waters – but inside the region that was the focus of Operation Relex, a Defence-led surveillance and disruption operation. Australia has no official maps of the place the boat sank. It did not send rescuers. This fact has always confounded advocates. The question has always been: Did the Howard government know the boat was there, and choose not to act?

Former Labor senator John Faulkner, who took part in a senate inquiry into “A Certain Maritime Incident”, believes SIEV X would have been tracked. A Certain Maritime Incident was the “children overboard” affair in which a boat carrying 223 passengers and crew sank 100 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, a fortnight before SIEV X. All were rescued. The inquiry was expanded to examine SIEV X and other refugee vessels.

Survivors of the SIEV X told the United Nations that two large boats arrived at night and shone spotlights on the water before turning away from people who had begun swimming towards them.

“They called out to the patrol boats for help but to no avail. Many gave up hope then,” Biddulph says. “It’s not clear why Australia did not mount an official rescue when it had HMAS Arunta just four hours away.”

Faulkner, who later became Defence minister, has said that only a judicial inquiry would make the facts surrounding the deaths of such a large number of people in such inexplicable circumstances known.

The closest he came to detailing his beliefs about what happened was in a carefully worded speech on SIEV X to the senate on September 25, 2002: “At no stage do I want to break, nor will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS [the Australian Secret Intelligence Service] or the AFP [Australian Federal Police]. But those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.”

Of this speech, Biddulph says: “It was carefully crafted brinkmanship from a very meticulous and ethical man, saying only what he was free to say. At the same time, he was making sure that nobody could possibly miss the imputation.”

Opposition policy under Labor leader Mark Latham was to conduct a royal commission specifically into SIEV X. The party dropped that idea when it lost the 2004 election.

I ask Biddulph why he thinks the truth still matters.

“The answers could change this from an accident to a crime against humanity,” he says. “A small group around the prime minister were micromanaging the defence assets in the area – and naval staff in particular, who I spoke to, were traumatised about not being able to carry out humanitarian actions as they were trained to. A defence person spoke to me privately about our surveillance abilities and said that it would have been eminently trackable from Australia with the device it was carrying.”

Wilma Davidson has taken five years to do a near-full-circuit of the memorial poles for maintenance. She is preparing, she tells me, with a quiver in her voice, to restore artwork on a set of small poles honouring three unknown sisters, aged 12, 13 and 14.

“Three sisters have gone and we don’t know if the parents are alive or not,” she says. “I can’t get that picture out of my head. I am coming to them. I wouldn’t avoid them.”

Davidson got involved in the memorial through friends in the Quaker community in Canberra. “It’s a bit like Quaker practice,” she says, “being present and sitting in silence.”

She has walked many visitors through the memorial, most of them schoolchildren. Family members of those who drowned have visited from interstate and overseas. One mother attached a photo of her drowned son to his pole.

With tragedy there are often notions of victims, heroes and villains. Given the politics of both major parties, asylum seekers are often framed as villains, but Davidson appreciates the courage needed to leave behind everything for a perilous journey in a substandard boat.

She sees them as heroes as well as victims.

“In this country,” she says, “we seem to only honour the dead of those who died with a gun in their hands. I find this very distressing.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Memorial keepers".

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Toni Hassan is a Walkley Award-winning freelance writer.