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The SIEVX: conspiracy or tragedy?

By Emmy Silvius - posted Friday, 19 September 2008

SIEVX, or Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, is the name officially designated in Canberra for a rundown old Indonesian fishing boat that was used in October 2001 for smuggling people from Iraq and Afghanistan on the last part of their journey to Australia.

SIEVX was the 12th and last vessel used to transport desperate people seeking a new life in a country they envisioned would give them a fair go. Their dreams were to be shattered before they set foot in Australia. Not only that, the concept of a “fair-go” was thrown out the window the day these people tried to enter our country legally. Why? What was their crime?

In the early morning of October 18, 2001, 421 people mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan were packed onto an old wooden fishing vessel that was a mere 19½ metres long and 4 metres wide. Most of the passengers were women and children who eagerly wished to be reunited with their husbands and fathers. These men were either being held in detention centres in Australia or had been granted Temporary Protection Visas. Indonesian armed police supervised the loading of the dilapidated and overcrowded vessel. One man who attempted to disembark with his family was pistol-whipped and made to stay. A patrol boat escorted the leaky vessel out of the port of Lampong. Later that day another patrol boat sped past them.


Not long into the journey the boat started taking in water. Around 3.00pm the next day the engines failed and the boat sank in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. This particular area was patrolled daily by Australian border protection surveillance aircraft.

About 100 people survived the capsizing and desperately clung onto whatever was within their reach. There were only 60 lifejackets. It took up to 21 hours of floating helplessly in the high seas before “miraculously” a couple of Indonesian fishing boats happened to find them. These fishing boats were 60 nautical miles out to sea, which is much further than the local boats usually went.

They would have been confronted by an horrific scene - especially the sight of the body of a tiny baby, born during the nightmare of the sinking, still joined by its umbilical cord to its dead mother, afloat in the water. Every single survivor testified later that they saw lights of up to three vessels close by in the night to which they called out. However, the vessels just turned around leaving the people to drown. In total 353 people died (146 children, 142 women and 65 men) and a mere 44 survived (33 men, 9 women and 2 children). The survivors were immediately returned to Jakarta. Interestingly they did not arrive at their destination until 6.00pm on October 22. This raises questions as to why such a long route was chosen for their return journey.

The fact that all survivors reported seeing lights in the night certainly adds to the many suspicions surrounding this disaster. Questions relating to this, as well as the possibility of the boat having been sabotaged, are discussed by Tony Kevin in his book A Certain Maritime Incident (see especially pages 57-75).

Australian politics at the time

This tragedy initially received minimal media coverage as at the time much discussion was still taking place on the “children overboard incident”. This particular maritime calamity instigated the launch of a new, severe naval operation by the government - Operation Relex - whose mission was to turn back boats as well as set up a People Smuggling Task Force in the Prime Minister’s own department in Canberra. Its role was to gather all intelligence on people smuggling and co-ordinate Operation Relex.

An enormous amount of resources was used. John Howard promised vastly increased surveillance of the immense area between Indonesia and Australia’s island territories, Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. In light of this, it seems very odd that the Australian Navy apparently made no attempt to intercept one of the largest ever boats filled with asylum seekers which left Indonesia on that fatal day in October 2001.


A month prior to this tragedy Howard announced that he had authorised “saturation surveillance” of international waters between Australia and Indonesia. He said: “We don’t, in this nation, sink boats… But we’re certainly talking about acts which are designed to deter and encourage deterrence, and also to enhance the fact that we are quite properly endeavouring to discourage people from setting out in the first place.” Howard refused to say how he would deal with vessels carrying asylum-seekers, except that the Australian Defence Force would act lawfully and decently.

In a Senate CMI Committee Report Senator John Faulkner writes that the then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, had claimed that physically disrupting the work of people smugglers was one of the main reasons for the decline in asylum seeker boats coming to Australia. The AFP agreed that there were a whole series of methods that could be used to prevent the departure of the vessel and that it was the “discretion of the liaison officer in Jakarta as to the best method to apply”. There may be disruption of the transport of the passengers to the embarkation point, for instance, or the movement of the boat to that embarkation point.

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty confirmed the more active nature of the disruption activities, when he said that their purpose is to, “prevent the departure of a vessel … either by the arrest of individuals or by the detention of individuals, or by ensuring that the individuals don’t reach the point of embarkation if that was known”. He explained that the AFP provided equipment, training and travel costs to those Indonesian authorities involved in disruption activities. For instance, the AFP’s Law Enforcement Cooperation Program provided training and equipment to the Indonesian National Police. Five teams of the Indonesian National Police have been established through this program and are directly involved in disruption activity.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in Social Policy Connections (PDF 745KB), September 2008.

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About the Author

Emmy Silvius is a member and employee of Social Policy Connections in Melbourne. She is studying for her Bachelor of Theology Degree at YTU in Box Hill and is most passionate about many issues relating to social justice, particularly in the area of trafficked persons and asylum seekers. She was part of the establishing group of Sanctuary Northern Rivers in Lismore (NSW) and assisted in the settlement of the first Sudanese refugee family to arrive in Lismore.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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