To mark Refugee Week last week, the museum was honoured to host the Sydney screening of the 2017 feature documentary The Staging Post in partnership with Settlement Services International. The Staging Post was produced and directed by Jolyon Hoff, an Australian documentary filmmaker who was living in Indonesia in 2013 when the Australian government instigated mandatory detention for all asylum seekers arriving by boat, with no possibility for resettlement in Australia. Jolyon had never met a refugee, so he headed for the village of Cisarua (about an hour south of Jakarta), known as the staging post for boats embarking for the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island. It was there that he met two young Afghan Hazara refugees, Muzafar Ali and Khadim Dai. ‘We liked each other straight away’, Jolyon later said, ‘and that day we decided to start a project together.’
On 18 October 2001 a decrepit, overcrowded fishing boat embarked from Sumatra, Indonesia, carrying more than 400 asylum seekers who had fled Iraq and Afghanistan. It foundered the next day en route to the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island, drowning 353 people – 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. The boat would come to be known as SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown).
According to survivors more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night when two vessels arrived and shone searchlights, but failed to rescue anyone. Only 45 people were eventually rescued, by passing fishermen. Ten years on controversy still surrounds the sinking of SIEV X. Despite a number of Australian Senate motions a full independent inquiry into the tragedy has yet to be held.
To acknowledge the 10th anniversary, the Australian National Maritime Museum is displaying a compelling collection of student designs for the national memorial to SIEV X in Canberra in X for unknown – SIEV X memorial designs.
The concept for the memorial emerged through a nationwide art project coordinated by a group of friends from the Uniting Church. In 2003–04 students from more than 200 high schools learned about SIEV X and responded with designs for the memorial.
Their designs reflected a powerful emotional and intellectual engagement with the story of SIEV X and captured a range of feelings – empathy for the plight of young refugees, disbelief at the lack of media coverage of the incident and anger at the nation’s treatment of asylum seekers. A selection of these designs, including the winning concept by Brisbane student Mitchell Donaldson, is displayed in X for unknown.
Mitchell’s design consisted of a series of painted wooden poles forming the shape of a boat and running down into Lake Burley Griffin. He says, ‘I designed this memorial to make people think about the mistakes we made when the boat people needed help. It’s partly on land and partly in the water to represent how close the people were to safety. There are 353 bars, which is the number of people who died. The bars also represent that people were trapped. The low bars on the side show they could have been saved if we’d helped them.’
In 2007 the memorial, comprising 353 wooden poles decorated by schools, churches and community groups across Australia, was installed temporarily in Weston Park, Yarralumla, where it still stands today. Stretching over 300 metres, it is a haunting reminder of the scale of loss of life in 2001. Project organisers currently have a three year permit for the memorial, with hope it will become a 20 year permit.
X for unknown – SIEV X memorial designs is on display until 20 November 2011.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
It is hard to believe that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Tampa crisis of August 2001 – a defining moment in Australia’s maritime and immigration history. To acknowledge the anniversary we are displaying a life jacket and lifebuoy that were on board the Norwegian cargo ship when its crew rescued 433 asylum seekers from their stricken fishing boat, Palapa 1, in the Indian Ocean.
The life jacket and lifebuoy were part of the standard safety equipment on Tampa. It is not known whether they were used by the asylum seekers. Regardless they represent the tension between international obligations for safety of life at sea (SOLAS) and Australia’s domestic policy on refugees and asylum seekers. At the time of the rescue Tampa had a crew of 27 and was not licensed to carry more than 50 people. Despite this it shifted course to help the asylum seekers, who were mainly from Afghanistan.
Under pressure from some of the desperate asylum seekers Tampa’s Captain, Arne Rinnan, headed for the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island. Tampa was denied permission to enter Australian waters. When some passengers became unconscious Captain Rinnan issued a mayday signal and sailed toward Christmas Island. Tampa was boarded by Australian special forces who ordered the ship to turn around.
Following an intense political stand-off the asylum seekers were transferred to HMAS Manoora. They were taken to the Pacific island of Nauru as part of Australia’s Pacific Solution, and also New Zealand, where most were later granted asylum. The Pacific Solution aimed to prevent refugees from reaching Australian territory, where they could legally claim asylum, to detain them in cooperating foreign countries while their status was assessed. A small number of asylum seekers from Tampa were eventually granted refugee status and resettled in Australia.
The Tampa crisis sparked fervent political and public debate about refugees, border protection and safety of life at sea, which continues to this day. The Tampa life jacket and lifebuoy, evocative symbols of this debate, will be on display in the museum’s New Acquisitions Case until the end of September.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration