The shame continues: SIEV X after 20 years

It was 20 years ago yesterday, on 18 October 2001, that a small, overcrowded fishing boat set sail from Sumatra, Indonesia. On board were well over 400 asylum seekers—far too many for the small boat—who had fled the terrors of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. The boat was headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, a few hundred kilometres away. Asylum seekers sought to reach Christmas Island so that they could then claim asylum in Australia.

This was completely in accord with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia accepted—and included in part within legislation adopted in the Migration Act 1958. See https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/refugee-convention

Unfortunately the boat, which was seriously overloaded, sank the next day, 19 October 2001 (20 years ago today). This mean that 353 people drowned (146 children, 142 women and 65 men). The actual name of the boat is not known; it is known today as SIEV X. SIEV is the acronym used by the surveillance forces for a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown. The Roman numeral X designates this as the tenth such boat so categorised by Australian authorities. The acronym dehumanises those on board the boat and generalises the tragedies of all those fleeing their homelands.

(This is not the vessel known as SIEV X. It is a photo of a boat filled with refugees, used as an example of the scenario on a SIEV X memorial page, https://www.safecom.org.au/sievx-memorial.htm)

According to survivors,more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night. Two vessels arrived and shone searchlights across the ocean, but they failed to rescue anyone. Some time later, 45 people were rescued by fishermen in the area.

The sinking and deaths occurred during an Australian federal election campaign, soon after the saga that involved the Palapa, another boat that sank, and the Tampa, the Norwegian vessel that rescued those on board the Palapa (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/26/20-years-on-and-the-shame-continues-the-palapa-the-tampa-and-children-overboard/) The Federal Government turned these two events into political footballs, tapping into the xenophobia and jingoism of some in the population—and won the election.

The shame that was generated by the callous and illegal actions of the Australian Government in events surrounding each of these incidents continues today, in the ever-worsening policies in our nation relating to refugees and asylum seekers. Whilst Australia has accepted around 190,000 migrants each year for the past few years (around three times the number admitted 25 years ago), there are only around 6,000 refugees admitted within that number each year. (I have taken these figures from a government publication, accessible at https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/rp/rp1617/refugeeresettlement#_Toc461022111)

In 2002, a Senate Select Committee had been established to investigate “A Certain Maritime Incident” (the “children overboard” incident in the whole Palapa—Tampa affair). The committee also investigated the SIEV-X sinking. It concluded that “… it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles.” (See “Findings” under “SIEV X -Chapters 8 and 9” at https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/maritimeincident/report/a06)

On the weekend almost five years after the sinking (15 September 2006), a memorial to the 353 people who died in that event was opened in Weston Park in Canberra, ACT. The memorial had 353 white poles, each of which had been decorated by a community group, a school group, or a church group, drawn from right around Australia. Each pole represented one of the deceased.

The Uniting Church has a strong connection with this memorial. The artwork for the 353 poles was gathered by a national competition. Pieces from this artwork competition were first displayed at Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, and then at Wesley Uniting Church in Melbourne, before being put on display in Canberra at the Canberra City Uniting Church. At that event in Canberra, the design for the memorial was announced—the poles were to be put into the ground in a design that represented the outline of the vessel, when viewed from above.

Overhead view of the memorial,
from https://www.sievxmemorial.com

The then Prime Minister indicated that the Federal Government was opposed to the project, but the ACT Chief Minister, John Stanhope, opened the project in 2006. Permission had not been granted to make the memorial permanent, so a crowd of people carried the poles into the places designated for them. The event received strong national coverage. Public opinion was galvanised against our inhuman national policy regarding refugees.

The next year, 2007, the memorial became permanent. It remains to this day as a reminder of the willingness of the Australian people to assist our neighbours in need; and the intransigence of our federal leadership (sadly, a bipartisan intransigence) when it comes to such matters.

The need to be a welcoming country to people who are rightly fleeing the persecution and violence being perpetrated against them in their homelands, is still an issue today, as the Christians United for Afghanistan project indicates. See https://www.unitedforafghanistan.com/#sign

The photos I have used were taken just recently (October 2021) by Willem Kok, a member of the Yarralumla Uniting Church, which is the Uniting Church Congregation that serves the area that includes Weston Park and the SIEV X memorial.

Declare boldly the gospel of peace, put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6; Pentecost 13B)

This morning, as the Canberra Region Presbytery gathered online to meet in council, the theme for consideration was Advocacy. At the start of the meeting, the Rev. Andrew Smith led the gathering in a time of reflection and preparation. Andrew read from the closing section of Ephesians 6 (the epistle that is offered in the revised common lectionary for the Sunday after the meeting).

Andrew invited members of the presbytery to listen, reflect, and then write in the chat what stands out for them, as we consider advocacy and hear these words about “the cosmic powers … the armour of God … the gospel of peace … the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:10—20).

Those present noted motifs such as “speaking boldly” … “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” … “declare it boldly” … “speak directly and bluntly to power”. One person noted that perseverance is required, and there is no indication of victory only resources for the fray. One participant observed, “I saw a shimmering chainmail ‘armour’, more the quality of water that is soft, resists and extinguishes flaming arrows, and wears down hard places over time” and, a little later, “I also wondered about cloaks of feathers as ‘armour’ insisting on identity, diversity, justice for all – those cloaks we have seen in parliaments in recent times”.

Some people noted the imperative present in this passage: “I MUST speak” … “ the imperative is incontestable; we have the armour to take whatever gets thrown at us” … “we have no other option but to speak up for justice” … “we MUST stand strong against evil and pray continually,  we have the armour of God to give us strength and protection”. Another person observed the need for “thorough preparation and then to stand”. One noted, “I was struck by the phrase “fighting against the spiritual forces of evil”.  It brings out the spiritual nature of injustice and the need for faith and commitment to address this.”

Some participants related the biblical text to current circumstances: “In the electronic world in which we live, the actions of the principalities and powers for good and evil are more clearly revealed, so our enemies and allies are more clearly seen.”

One commented at length: “An Ambassador in chains to me shows three ideas. Firstly the idea of servant leadership the need to take actions in the service of others. Secondly, the idea that an advocate has no choice but to be a prisoner to their passion to help others an idea of a destiny to do good. Thirdly, the need to be empathetic with the suffering of others not from a vantage point outside their hardship but from a feeling of a common struggle and hardship.”

Another highlighted that “faith in Christ is the basis to understand and do good”; another said, “first we must read the Bible and understand God’s will, then proclaim it in the need for justice for others”. Others commented, “pray constantly, be bold, be well prepared, promote peace” … “every footfall can bring peace to our context” … “’Be Strong in God’ – struggle against evil, with Prayer, Preparation, God’s Protection, and then Action”. One noted “the promise of being able to ‘stand firm’”, another highlighted “feeling that you are armed with God’s love to speak up with no fear”, yet another, “constant prayer in the Spirit”.

One observed that the passage speaks of “the whole armour, not just feet, we have been given the armour to use”; another that “the whole armour of God evokes a gathering of so many things- love, peace and truth. These are in uneasy relationship. Here faith comes in that there is a way through.” That led another person to note “the irony of dressing like a Roman soldier”, and yet another to observe “the internal contradictions between putting on the armour and proclamation of peace”.

A good question posed was, “Where is the distinction between God’s justice and human justice? or are they the same?” That’s a question worth pondering beyond this particular reading, in each of our actions, day by day, week after week.

Collated from the chat at the August 2021 Presbytery meeting by John Squires

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/