By Jay Fletcher
Nine weeks after a boat carrying asylum seekers was smashed apart on the shores of Christmas Island on December 15, traumatised survivors remained locked up by the department of immigration. They are almost completely cut off from family and support.
At least 48 people may have died in the devastating shipwreck. The wooden vessel, named SIEV221 by authorities, was thrown onto rocks in savage seas to the north of the island at about 5am.
Christmas Island residents were the first to respond and tried to help. Some filmed shocking images of the shipwreck that were broadcast across Australia.
Refugees from Iran and Iraq drowned by the dozens in the five-metre swell. Others, including three crewmembers from Indonesia, struggled against waves as high as eight metres for more than an hour-and-a-half before customs and navy vessels made it to the scene.
Rescue efforts carried on for 48 hours, but by December 18 customs announced there were no more survivors.
The confirmed death toll was 30, including eight children, but the total deaths will never be known.
Jamal Daoud from the Social Justice Network in Sydney said survivors told him that up to 100 refugees were on the boat.
Forty-two people were rescued and five were taken to Perth with serious injuries. Others were taken into the “care” of immigration authorities — locked up in the Christmas Island detention centre.
The disaster was reported globally. Many asked why the boat had not been detected by Australia’s multimillion-dollar surveillance system designed to intercept such voyages.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced three investigations into the disaster on December 16.
The coroner would carry out an overall inquiry; the federal police would “focus a criminal investigation on the people smugglers”; and customs would carry out its own review of operations, The Australian said.
But the state of the survivors is mostly unknown. Immigration minister Chris Bowen was quick to dismiss any chance of “special treatment”.
The best response would be to release every survivor into the community and reunite them with family members, so they can recover and build their lives in Australia.
But almost before the bodies were pulled from the water, Bowen told ABC News on December 17:
"As tempting as it may be for some people to say 'Look just grant them all permanent residency' I think the only responsible choice is to go through the normal processes.”Daoud told Green Left Weekly:
“Until now all the survivors are still in Christmas Island detention, except one or two women who are in community detention in Perth.Police have identified most of the asylum seekers that lost their lives. Many had family living in Australia or in detention.
“The department could have acted [with] more humanity — even releasing them immediately. But they choose to be seen as very tough with no sympathy.”
A makeshift morgue of refrigerated units was set up on the island. Daoud said the bodies were still there.
He said families were very concerned and angry because “they want to bury their family members as soon as possible”, according to Islamic burial rites.
“But the minister and the department is insulting the families of the dead by keeping the bodies in the morgue and not allowing them to be buried or send them back to Iraq or Iran.”Contact with the Christmas Island detention centre has been very restricted since protests and hunger strikes broke out over conditions and processing delays.
None of the refugees are permitted mobile phones. Internet access and time available for phone calls has been shortened. The same applies for the survivors of SIEV221.
Daoud, who last spoke to some of the survivors at the end of January, said their distress was compounded by their isolation.
He cannot contact them directly; no calls can be made to detainees on Christmas Island and he must rely on when they get access to a phone to hear from them.
“It is the same for family,” he said. “Families here in Sydney cannot call their relatives.”
Even so, countless stories of loss have come to light.
“It is a huge trauma,” said Daoud. “The trauma of being through the tragedy and the trauma of losing somebody. All of them have lost somebody.”
The January 25 Australian said that more than 30 asylum seekers held in detention had contacted the federal police because they believed their family members were on the boat.
A 24-hour hotline that was set up after the tragedy received more than 900 calls.
An Iraqi man from Sydney told The Australian that his brother’s 23-year-old wife, eight-month-old daughter and four-year-old son were killed in the disaster. His inconsolable brother was still held on Christmas Island.
Three children who were orphaned in the crash have been reunited with family members.
But Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told Green Left Weekly:
“I know of a family in the Darwin airport lodge [another detention centre] who lost seven people in the shipwreck.Curr said remaining members of the Iraqi family are now split up between Christmas Island, the Darwin airport lodge and the Melbourne immigration detention centre.
“A young girl who survived the shipwreck is related to this family, but she is being held in Christmas Island and the family cannot get to her.”
“They are asking, ‘Couldn’t you please put us together somewhere?’ But they are getting no response.Grief-stricken families, and even survivors, were told to call the hotline to find out who had lived, the West Australian’s Jane Hammond revealed on December 20 when she interviewed a survivor in a Perth detention centre.
“You wouldn’t want an Australian child survivor to be treated like this, so why would you treat a refugee child survivor this way?”
In response, the immigration department took the journalist to the Press Council for “unethical conduct”.
None of the other survivors has been able to share their accounts of the disaster with the public.
Curr said the privacy and secrecy since the shipwreck was cause for concern.
“I’ve got grave concerns about how the survivors have been locked away out of sight,” she said.The customs’ operations report was released on January 24. The review, held internally, found that its personnel “acted appropriately”.
“We won’t hear anything now until there’s a coronial inquiry. We will be lucky if we hear any voices of the asylum seekers — the voices will be muted.”
It recommended new land-based surveillance systems and new boats for the AFP and the department of regional Australia, which governs Christmas Island.
As he released the report, acting home affairs minister Robert McClelland said that “forces of nature were essentially behind the vessel … driving it onto the rocks of Christmas Island”.
He also singled out “people smuggling” operations as “a disaster waiting to happen”.
But the review admitted the survivors were not consulted at all. It “did not seek or have witness statements available to it”.
Daoud said the refugees were “very, very disappointed”.
“On the day of the crash, we can argue a lot about how the rescue was carried out,” he said. “But after all that, the government was simply disgraceful, inefficient and cruel.
“We think it’s a cover-up to curb criticism.
“There should be a serious investigation; there should be a judicial inquiry or a royal commission.”