Twenty-seven people are feared dead after a boat packed with asylum seekers bound for Australia sank off the coast of Indonesia last week.
It’s the latest in a significant number of unseaworthy boats packed with people who have risked — and lost — their lives in an attempt to reach Australia. The government claims the Malaysia agreement is the answer to stop people risking their lives in a boat in order to claim asylum. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has refused to support the Malaysia deal but routinely promises to re-implement the Pacific Solution if elected prime minister. As part of his asylum-seeker policy, Abbott declares that boats should be sent back to Indonesia: “… it should be an option to turn the boats around where it is safe to do so. The Navy’s done it before, it can do it again”.
But an Australian Navy Admiral speaking at Senate estimates recently reinforced how dangerous it was to physically turn boats around. “There are risks involved in this whole endeavour,” said Admiral Ray Griggs. “There have been fires lit, there have been attempts to storm the engine compartment of these boats, there have been people jumping in the water and that sort of thing.”
Admiral Griggs was part of the HMAS Arunta crew during the SIEV 7 and SIEV 9 incidents in 2001 — incidents that unfolded at the height of the Howard government’s commitment to turn the boats back.
Griggs noted in Senate estimates that most boats that arrive these days have far less people on them and are more likely to be carrying life jackets than during the early 2000s, but that the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea “would be the prime driver in the decision making of the commanding officer”. The convention, of which Australia is a signatory of, states that “each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that any necessary arrangements are made … for the rescue of persons in distress at sea round its coasts.”
Shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison was quick to assure naval officers that they wouldn’t be held responsible for events. “Our intention is to ensure that those charged with carrying out government policy — they’re only responsible for its execution, not its enactment,” said Morrison. “We will make our policy decision and we will bear responsibility for the consequences. We won’t be putting any naval and immigration officials at the end of the stick.”
However, naval officers are bound by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea as well as Australian Occupation Health & Safety Standards.
Indonesia made it clear earlier this year that not only did it think turning boats back was dangerous, but that doing so would affect Australia and Indonesia’s diplomatic relationship.
To consider the consequences of Abbott’s proposed return to this policy, Crikey examined the case studies of boats that were previously turned back under the Howard government. In total, 12 Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEV) were intercepted by the Navy during Operation Relex, the operation aimed at turning boats around during 2001-2002. The Navy instructs were to “deter and deny” boats entry into Australia.
Of those 12, attempts to enforce the turnback policy were made on 10 occasions. During those 10 attempts, only four boats and its occupants were successfully returned to Indonesian waters. Five people died. A further occasion was attempted and successfully occurred in November 2003 to a boat carrying 53 passengers. In total Australian warships returned five SIEVs from September 2001 — November 2003. Customs — as opposed to the navy — returned a boat with 15 people on board to Indonesia in March 2004, after it was intercepted of the Ashmore Islands.
It’s difficult to get information about these towbacks. The immigration department told Crikey to contact Customs, Customs told us that the Navy was in charge during that time, so we were directed to contact Defence. Defence could only give us information on the towbacks between 2001-2003, though it did reinforce the difficulties with implementing the “deter and deny” strategy. When asked about the risks and dangerous events Navy personnel encountered, the Defence Department told Crikey:
“Many of the SIEVs were poorly equipped and their sea worthiness was of a low standard. On the occasion that turnbacks were achieved, RAN personnel on the major fleet units and patrol boats remained vigilant on seaworthiness and carried out repairs to ensure safety. Food water and life jackets and navigational aids were also provided to ensure that the SIEV were capable of completely the final leg of the return voyage. The hostile behaviour of some of the potential irregular immigrants also caused safety risks to passengers and ADF personnel. Risks included: fires, flooding, deliberate sabotage of vessel equipment, psychical violence to boarding teams and each other and general threats.”
Crikey has broken down the information into each SIEV incident and exactly what happened. Much of this information is taken from the Senate inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident, which examined the SIEV X incident where 353 asylum seekers — 146 children, 142 women and 65 men — all died when their boat sank as it attempted to enter Australia.
The most useful appendix, which relies on interviews and evidence from Naval staff on the various SIEV incidents, was produced by Rear Admiral Smith and tabled by the government members in the committee, led by Liberal MP George Brandis. Brandis, who was deputy chair of the committee, had specifically requested interviews and event summaries from the Navy. The document was tabled in order to help prove Brandis’ allegations that asylum seekers had a “repeated pattern of abuse of children” by asylum seekers, even if the children overboard allegations on SIEV 4 were incorrect.
Former Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett was involved with the Senate inquiry and told Crikey that he was “always a little bit more dubious when [quotes from the Navy are] provided by a government senator, rather than through the proper government channels”.
“As a tactic it blew up in Brandis’ face,” Tony Kevin, author of A Certain Maritime Incident and currently working on new book The Four Lost SIEVS, told Crikey. Kevin says that the various admirals’ evidence was closely interrogated and that rather than proving a pattern of negligence on the part of the asylum seekers, it helped swing the opinions of many of the Senators involved in the committee towards a more sympathetic view of the asylum seekers’ level of desperation.
Kevin added that while the chronology and basic facts of the naval evidence is correct, it’s not “accurate in attributing moods and emotions and motives” of the asylum seekers and Navy staff involved.
SIEV 1, also known as The Aceng, was intercepted by the HMAS Warramunga on September 7, 2001 as it headed towards Ashmore Island. There were 229 people on board. Crew from the Warramunga boarded SIEV 1 and attempted to turn it around and send it back to Indonesian waters, but twice the boat started to return to Australia as soon as Warramunga crew disembarked.
On the third occasion, the Master of the SIEV 1 “became nervous and after pointing to himself made slashing motions at his neck and said ‘Indonesia’,” indicating he would be killed if he returned. On the third occasion “the behaviour of those on board became abusive, with threats of harm to the boarding party, smashing of windows in the wheelhouse, and objects thrown at the boarding party personnel,” and the boarding party retreated. The next morning all 229 asylum seekers were transferred to Nauru without further incident.
Just a day later, a boat carrying 130 Afghan asylum seekers was found run aground on Ashmore Reef. The boat was in such bad condition, the asylum seekers were immediately transferred to the empty SIEV 1 boat, which still remained nearby. Crew from the HMAS Gawler searched the boat and found 30 knives on board. The following day one of the asylum seekers told navy crew that they would “throw themselves overboard if they were taken back to Indonesia”.
By September 12 a group of young men threatened suicide and began a food and water strike, but the situation had apparently calmed by the following day. On September 22 the 130 asylum seeker were transferred to Nauru to be processed.
On September 11 2001, KM Sumber Bahagi, also known as SIEV 3, was intercepted by HMAS Warramunga north of Australia’s Contiguous Zone. A total of 129 people were on board, including five Indonesian crew. The rest were Iraqi asylum seekers, including 54 children. No life jackets were on board.
When told the boat was to be turned around “the Master gestured with his hand his throat being cut indicating that he was not safe,” according to Lieutenant Commander Gregg, the executive officer of the Warramunga. Gregg also reported seeing a woman “holding a child over the side and threatening to throw the child” in to the water.
The situation was getting out of control. As Gregg explained: “The situation continued to worsen with all male PIIs [potential illegal immigrants] starting to riot and threaten the BP [boarding party] as a mass. I assessed that the situation could not be controlled without the use of high force and possibly lethal force.”
Gregg and his crew returned to the Warramunga, but asylum seekers on board the SIEV 3 attempted to run aground on to the dangerous Ashmore Reef. ” In a last attempt to avoid a SOLAS [safety of lift at sea] incident and loss of life I agreed to embark the PIIs [potential illegal immigrants] for the night. The SIEV then turned south, missing the reef by less than one nautical mile,” said Commander Menhinick. All asylum seekers were then transported to Nauru.
Otherwise known as the boat involved in the “children overboard” scandal. On October 6, 2001 the HMAS Adelaide intercepted a boat carrying 223 asylum seekers just off Christmas Island. When the boarding party boarded the boat it found the occupants “irate, aggressive and to some extent hysterical” at the prospect of being returned to Indonesia. There were threats of suicide by asylum seekers and some began to sabotage their boat.
Fourteen people either jumped or were thrown overboard. Another boarding party landed on the SIEV 4 to regain control. There are arguments over whether the SIEV 4 was deliberately sabotaged or if it sank under strain of being towed by the HMAS Adelaide. Regardless, the boat sank and all 223 asylum seekers were put onboard the HMAS Adelaide and then transferred to Christmas Island for processing.
This was the first “successful” attempt to return a boat to Indonesia, although it allegedly resulted in the death of three men. Around 240 asylum seekers were on board the SIEV 5 intercepted near the Ashmore Reef on October 12, 2001. For five days the boat was kept in custody in Ashmore Lagoon, until it was boarded by a party from the HMAS Warramunga with the intention of returning the boat to Indonesia. The engine ignition key and fuel transfer pump had apparently been thrown overboard and the engine would not start. The cooling pump was also suspected to be sabotaged.
After repairing the engine, the return voyage to Indonesia was mostly calm until the HMAS Warramunga crew handed control back to the Indonesian Master of the boat. Lieutenant Commander Gregg explains ” A riot ensued with one group storming the engine room of the SIEV and disabled the engine. Another PII [potential illegal immigrant] lit a fire up forward and another slashed himself three times with a razor blade. Most aggressive PII [potential illegal immigrant] told the boarding officer that most would kill themselves if they were returned to ID [Indonesia].”
The boat was returned to Indonesian waters.
On October 19, 2001 a boat containing 222 people was intercepted by HMAS Arunta north of Christmas Island. It was escorted to Christmas Island and on October 22 a party from the HMAS Warramung boarded the boat and discovered the SIEV’s engine had been sabotaged and engineers from Warramunga attempted repairs.
“Those aboard the SIEV responded aggressively, starting fires, tearing up deckboards, attempting to kick out hull planks and ripping the bilge area apart,” said Commander Menhinick, commanding officer of the Warramunga. “The situation was serious enough to cause the Warramunga to go to action stations in readiness for a potential safety of life at sea situation, and only resolved when the potential illegal immigrants were shown that they were being videotaped and told that their actions would not assist their case with the Australian government.” (note: “potential illegal immigrant” was a fairly common term used in the early 2000s, even though it’s not illegal to seek asylum).
By October 28 the repairs were finished and the SIEV and Warramunga began its trip to return the SIEV 6 to Indonesian waters. Within 11 nautical miles of Christmas Island, issues developed with the bilge pumps and all asylum seekers were transferred to the Warramunga. The SIEV 6 was scuttled by the Warramunga crew and the 222 asylum seekers were taken to Christmas Island for processing.
The second “successful” return of a boat to Indonesia involved an incident where a child was thrown overboard. This time 215 people were on board the boat intercepted on October 22, 2001, near Ashmore Island. A man dived overboard when the boarding party for the HMAS Bunbury arrived. Another man reportedly threatened to throw a small, injured girl overboard. The boat was escorted to Ashmore Island and on October 24, 15 asylum seekers jumped into the water. A small child was also held over the side of the boat by a woman and then dropped into the water. One of the men who had jumped in earlier saved the child and all returned safely to the SIEV (this is the only time that a child was thrown overboard in all the SIEV incidents). On October 28 the HMAS Arunta arrived and the SIEV occupants were told they would be returned to Indonesia. According to the event summary tabled by Rear Admiral Smith, things got out of control when asylum seekers were told they would be returned:
“Threats of self-harm and deliberate damage to the SIEV were made and attempted. Incidents included threats to jump overboard, threats to throw a child overboard, PIIs [potential illegal immigrants] actually jumping into the water, dousing themselves with fuel, damage to guy wires of SIEV mast, damage to railings, staring a fire in the hold, and splashing of fuel on deck. PIIs broke through the SIEV’s engineering space bulkhead but were repelled by the TSE [Transport Security Element] using pepper spray.”
The SIEV 7 was returned to Indonesian waters. According to a Four Corners report, three men disappeared, presumed drowned, while trying to swim ashore soon after the return.
A boat from Vietnam carrying 31 asylum seekers was intercepted by HMAS Wollongong on Octover 27, 2001 near the Tiwi Islands. When told they would be transferred to Ashmore Island, those onboard “began staging passive protest by de-rigging their awning in the heat of the afternoon sun, sitting on the awning with children and refusing to allow holding party to re-rig the awning,” said commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Heron. “Steaming party reported to me that [unauthorised arrivals] had become angry, were ripping clothes, shouting at the steaming party and gesticulating in a threatening manner.”
This reaction was apparently because those onboard SIEV 8 believed Ashmore Island was in Indonesia. After being repeatedly assured it was Australian territory, the situation calmed.
A 30-35 metre vessel containing 149 people was detected near Ashmore Island on October 31. HMAS Bunbury boarded the boat and found that its fuel lines had been cut. The HMAS Arunta took over from the Bunbury and was unsuccessful in its attempts to repair the engine. On the morning it was found, a riot occurred on board the SIEV 9 and a man apparently threatened to throw a child overboard. “This was to be the first of several incidents upon SIEV 9 reported to involve threats to children, although witness statements in relation to the various incidents are not always consistent as to the details of the events, as might be expected in the circumstances,” says the Senate estimates report.
Later that day the same man who threatened to throw a child overboard, then attempted to throw an infant overboard. A woman struggled with the man over the infant.
The following day a riot broke out when attempted to tow the boat. A woman allegedly threatened tried to throw her baby overboard and five men jumped in to the water. There was also a hunger strike, self-harm incidents and threats to Arunta crew. “During the riots, self harm and threats to children became common place and were not seen to be out of the ordinary, almost a ‘modus operandi’,” said Lieutenant Henry in a statement. On November 9 all asylum seekers on board were transported to Christmas Island.
It was a front-page story the day after the 2001 election and resulted in a boat sinking and two female asylum seekers drowning. A fire started on board the Sumbar Lestari after fuel lines were deliberately cut when the Navy intercepted the vessel near Ashmore Island and told it to return to Indonesia on November 8. The SIEV 10 had 164 people on board, including 33 children under the age of 12.
With the boat on fire and sinking, asylum seekers jumped overboard. The HMAS Wollongong and ACV Arnhem Bay crews rescued many of the asylum seekers, but two women drowned. The rest of the SIEV 10 occupants were transferred to Christmas Island for processing.
The third “successful” attempt to return a boat to Indonesia. SIEV 11 contained 18 asylum seekers, including a baby, plus four Indonesian crew and was intercepted on December 1, 2001. Repairs of engineers and steering issues was made by navy crew. By December 13 those on board were stressed and threatening self harm and that they would jump overboard, but the boat was released off the Indonesia coast without major incident.
Another “successful” Indonesian return. A boat containing 133 passengers was intercepted by HMAS Leeuwin near Ashmore Island on December 16, 2001.
According to witness statements from Lieutenant Casey who was in the boarding party: “I saw several of the young males destroy the boom that was being used as a support for a tarpaulin on the foredeck of the SIEV. They then proceeded to tear apart the tarpaulin and they attempted to throw part of it over the side. I saw one of the [unauthorised arrivals] threaten two members of the boarding team with a piece of this boom. At the same time I saw flames coming from the fore part of the vessel. The ship’s boarding party quickly extinguished the fire. I then saw several [unauthorised arrivals] dropping paper, cardboard and other items into the forward hold and noted they were attempting to ignite these items. I also saw several [unauthorised arrivals] freely jumping over the side of the SIEV whilst wearing lifejackets.
As the Leeuwin accompanied the SIEV 12 back to Indonesia, there were two incidences of self harm, the boat was sabotaged twice, fires were light on board three times, a child was held over the side of the boat ( but not dropped) and there were four incidences of asylum seekers jumping overboard. But on December 20 the boat was released near Indonesia.
On November 4, 2003, Minas Bone, a 12-metre fishing boat carrying 14 Kurdish men and four Indonesian crew arrived at Snake Bay on Melville Island. It was 80 kilometres north of Darwin and it travelled to Australia undetected. The boat and its occupants were returned to Indonesia, but not after the Australia government decided to excise thousands of islands and huge parts of the Australian coastline from the Migration Act to ensure they could not claim asylum.
No official SIEV number has been made public by Customs for this boat as SIEVs are their internal numbering system and only made public if required. Jupiter, a boat with nine women and six men aboard, landed at Ashmore Reef on March 4, 2004. The asylum seekers were spotted by a patrolling Customs boat out. By this stage Ashmore Reef was no longer part of Australia’s migratory zone and all 15 were returned to Indonesia.
UPDATE: This article originally said that the Four Corners report alleged that three men had drowned when returning to Indonesia on the SIEV 5. This is incorrect. Four Corners alleged that the three men drowned when the SIEV 7 was returned to Indonesia. The story has been updated, Crikey apologises for the error.