It is the 11 of March 2011. I am sitting in a hard plastic white chair, sweat gathering along the backs of my legs, diffused light pouring in through a large opened panel in the Recreation Centre’s wall, waiting for the service to begin. The more I wait, the more anxious I become. Though this is the official service on Christmas Island to honour the fifty asylum seekers’ lives lost during the Christmas Island boat tragedy (the worst disaster in peacetime maritime history in more than a hundred years), no asylum seekers from the detention centre have arrived for the proceedings. The last available chairs become occupied as a final trickle of islanders file in and the service begins. Bureaucrats and government officials step up to the microphone praising the rescue efforts of the Border Command and honouring the heroic efforts of the islanders. Still no asylum seekers arrive. I feel the enormity of their absence like a shadow shifting over our bodies. I can barely hear the words read by the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowden; they become muted, remote, under the weight of an enormous silence.
Zainal Majid, a well-respected Christmas Islander from the Malay community, steps up to the microphone. Zainal doubles over the podium, body wracked with sobs, tears drumming onto timber, slowly soaking in. Like a river finally being allowed its path to the sea, Zainal tells us a story of heartbreak and grief. I can finally hold why we are all here. Zainal recounts the story of a little girl clinging to a piece of timber in the water as the Janga was smashed into pieces against the island’s jagged cliffs. Zainal was unable to reach her due to the massive swell. Zainal and the little girl had watched each other as the sea raged and foamed between them. Later that day, Zainal found the girl’s body washed up on Ethel Beach.
While sorrow was expressed through the media by the Australian Government about what took place of that fateful day, there is still something disquieting, something that will not settle or resolve for me about what took place on Christmas Island ten years ago. In 2016 I flew back to the island with a suitcase full of questions. I asked an islander involved in the rescue effort about what took place on the 15 of December 2010. The story poured from him, poured into the space where so much silence had remained. I tried to take it in, all of it, I let the violence and suffering in. People and debris were strewn everywhere, he told me. We knew the Navy was just around the corner at Ethel beach. We thought they must be coming at any moment. Another Navy vessel was further out to sea. No one came. Until the boat was in pieces and spread across the coast, nobody from the Navy arrived.
Survivors and families of victims involved in the tragedy filed a class action against the Australian Government for its failure to rescue asylum seekers in the hours (and here I emphasise, hours) between the time the SIEV 221 was first sighted off the coast of Christmas Island and when it was smashed against the limestone at Rocky Point, as well as other failures that were believed to have contributed to the large numbers of those who drowned. The action ultimately ruled in favour of the Australia Government. Back on the mainland, I search for the NSW Supreme Court summary.
In its findings, the summary states that:
“The Commonwealth had no control over the risk that a SIEV, if not intercepted, might be shipwrecked on the coast of Christmas Island due to factors such as poor weather…Further, the Commonwealth did not put the plaintiffs at any risk of harm and, in particular: a) could not, and obviously did not, direct those in charge of the vessel to navigate a particular route to Australia; b) did not control the weather; c) …had no control over the primitive nature of the vessel …on the information which was made available to him at about 06:00 on 15 December 2010, Commander Livingstone did not know, nor did he have reason to suspect, that SIEV 221 was in distress…”
December on Christmas Island falls during the wet season, a time of notoriously dangerous swells. Container ships could not dock off the island’s port and the island was running out of supplies. The justification as to why the Navy commodes were apparently not patrolling closer to the islands at the time, was that the conditions were too treacherous, yet we are told Commander Livingstone did not know the ‘primitive’ vessel was in danger. The report concludes that those on board could have ‘protected themselves simply by not undertaking the voyage in the first place.’ My concerns grow deeper.
The troubling fact is that this extraordinary scenario is not altogether new, it has disturbing resonances with other incidences where the Australia Government has been implicated in the deaths of asylum seekers at sea. On 10 June 2013, border patrols spotted an unmoving asylum seeker vessel 52kms from Christmas Island. It was two days before a mayday was raised and full scale search began. Sixty men, women and children drowned. There were no survivors. The Navy refused to retrieve bodies for the bereaved families.
In 2013, I moved from Christmas Island to the paradisiacal atoll of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 900kms away. Over a sunset game of tennis looking over the atoll’s lagoon, a RAAF pilot told me his job was no longer to assist with rescues at sea, but rather to monitor asylum seekers’ boats and their fates. In front of my home, lifejackets, children’s shoes and broken pieces of boat wash ashore. Yet we can trace this apparent callousness back even further. It is well known that in October 2001, three hundred and fifty-three asylum seekers aboard the SIEV X drowned in international waters between Java and Australia. Forty-one people survived. Among the dead were one hundred and forty-six children. You only need to do a quick internet search scanning articles by the Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian and ABC to read the way in which the Howard Government was implicated in the drownings. There are deep concerns that the Australian Government knew about the boat before it even left Indonesia. Survivors tells us asylum seekers were forced to board the clearly dilapidated boat at gunpoint. The night after the boat sank, two military vessels arrived on the scene. The asylum seekers clinging to wreckage in heavy seas thought they were saved, but the ships turned their lights off and sailed away. There have been repeated calls for a judicial inquiry into what took place in that space far from the mainland’s gaze, but due to bipartisan opposition, the truth has never been exposed.
After nine years of trying to make sense of what plays out at our nation’s borders, I am left with more questions than answers. What I do know is that behind the veil of border security and bureaucracy, the violence toward asylum seekers grows. I found traces of this on my return to the islands in 2016 in the brightly coloured turn-back boats being craned onto Border Force vessels at Christmas Island’s port. Though largely invisible, these actions eat at the heart of who we are, our ‘Fair Go’ nation lost to us a little more with each scribing and re-inscribing of that hard white border in a shifting sea.
Reneé Pettitt-Schipp’s work with asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands inspired her first collection of poetry, The Sky Runs Right Through Us. This collection was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett manuscript prize as well as the 2019 CHASS Australia Student Prize. In 2019, The Sky Runs Right Through Us also won the Greg Crombie ‘Work of the Year’ in the Humanities Research Awards, as well as winning the WA Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Writer. Reneé now lives in WA’s Great Southern.