How a deadly voyage forced humiliating policy retreat
June 25, 2013
The political impact in Australia of the boat which sank on June 21, 2012, after days of floundering at sea, was immediate and enormous.
This boat, organised by people smuggler Billu and Indonesian Freddy Ambon, with the help of Afghani Dawood Amiri, sank about halfway between Indonesia and Christmas Island, after 30 hours or more of confusion between Australian and Indonesian rescuers about who was responsible for its rescue.
Freddy and Amiri have now both conceded that the boat was overloaded. Both deny responsibility.
Amiri told Fairfax Media in February that the 207 passengers aboard that boat were to have been a marketing coup for Billu. Advertisement
''That boat, it was going to break the previous record. If it made it to Christmas [Island], Billu said his network would become number one,'' Amiri said.
But the large numbers made it slow and unbalanced. Amiri was in phone contact with a man on the boat until the moment it sank. His friend told him about 150 of the passengers, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan and not used to the ocean, stayed on deck, ignoring pleas to "get inside, down in the stomach" of the boat to stabilise it.
The window of good weather was just three days and it was still mid-ocean when, on the fourth day, the wind blew up.
"The boat just got a little on one side, and all the boys who were up on the boat, more than 150 people, all rushed to the other side, and it just tipped," Amiri said.
Ultimately it was Australian navy personnel who assumed responsibility for the rescue and tried to save as many lives as they could. Amiri has since told Fairfax Media there were 207 people on board, 111 were rescued, which means 96 died that day - more than other estimates. The political fall-out was immediate and powerful. Ultimately, the Gillard government was forced into a humiliating policy backdown.
Initially, though, Julia Gillard tried to use the sinking, and a smaller one a few days later, to push her ''Malaysia solution'' legislation through Parliament.
"We have seen too much tragedy," she told Parliament as she reintroduced a private member's bill by Rob Oakeshott.
The Coalition, though, held firm to its preferred policy of towing boats back to Indonesia, and reopening Nauru and Manus Island as detention centres.
The deadlock pushed the issue off to an expert committee led by retired Defence chief Angus Houston, with the ultimate result that the Coalition policy, except for the boat tow-back, was adopted. The Malaysia plan (also recommended in the Houston report) has so far made no further progress. Amiri has been jailed for six years and his boss, Billu was recently arrested and has not yet gone on trial.
Asylum Seekers The Tragedies
2001 October 19 A vessel, dubbed the SIEV X, sinks off the coast of Indonesia. 352 dead.
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