By Andrew Humphries
Each October, retired Uniting Church Minister Rod Horsfield pauses to reflect on one of this country’s most shameful and tragic maritime incidents and wonders what might have been.
On October 19, 2001 an Indonesian fishing vessel carrying more than 400 asylum seekers sank in Australian maritime waters, with 353 men, women and children drowning.
It came to be known as the SIEV-X incident, SIEV-X being the acronym for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X (or unknown).
October 19 this year marked the 20th anniversary of the vessel’s sinking and, as he so often does, Rod cast his mind back to that fateful day in 2001.
“For me, there is always an immense sadness around what happened to those people,” Rod says.
“I read an article once about a Vietnamese refugee who came to Australia at the fall of Saigon and became Governor of South Australia and I couldn’t help wondering about what kind of contribution those who drowned on SIEV-X could have made to the life of our country if they had been welcomed.”
Other thoughts occupy Rod’s mind when he recalls the SIEV-X incident.
There is anger that our own government had made it so difficult for people like those refugees to come here and be welcomed, and ongoing anger at the cruel border controls put in place by successive governments.
There is, of course, deep compassion for those lives lost and for their relatives already in Australia who wanted so desperately to be reunited with them. And there is a sense of wonder, and gratitude, for the many people who joined with him in ensuring these victims would never be forgotten and that their story would live on forever.
The story begins for Rod on that October day in 2001, when news began to emerge of the SIEV-X sinking and the deaths of many of those people seeking a new life in Australia.
As Launceston’s Pilgrim Uniting Church Minister, Rod had already established a connection with a number of refugees in the city.
“Pilgrim was going through some big changes at the time and we had a relationship with a number of refugees and Muslims in Launceston, and this was around the same time as the 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers,” he says.
“Feelings were running high in the community about Muslim people in Launceston and women were being spat at and abused on the street, so we invited them all to morning tea at Pilgrim as an act of solidarity. So Pilgrim was already known for that kind of support for refugees.”
Rod says it was well-known Australia author, activist and psychologist Steve Biddulph, a member of Pilgrim’s congregation at the time, who got the ball rolling in the days after the SIEV-X’s sinking.
“Steve came and explained what had happened with SIEV-X, which had occurred at the same time the government was beginning to implement its border protection policy, and he was quite outraged by it all,” he says.
“My wife Beth and I sat down with Steve and talked about what sort of response we should make as a congregation. We decided we couldn’t ignore this, as the government was treating it as if the deaths of 353 people were of no consequence.
“We felt quite strongly that Australia was ignoring its international obligations to refugees and asylum seekers, because the fact is that people have every right to flee in fear for their lives and ask other countries for safe haven.
“It really resonated with me as a person of faith because we had a firm conviction that it was our Christian responsibility to offer hospitality to the stranger and the refugee. It was all very firmly rooted in our sense of obligation to offer that hospitality and that we had a responsibility to people who were asking for our help.”
There was a sense, too, that what had happened should not be allowed to go unrecognised and that it was imperative that those who drowned should not be forgotten.
Rod and his fellow activists didn’t know it at the time but the seed was being sown for an outpouring of public grief and anger that would ensure the story of the SIEV-X would live on.
“At the time, we said we wanted to tell that story of those who drowned off SIEV-X and the question was, of course, how do we do that?” he says.
“We thought the best way to do it was to tell the coming generation about it, so we went to Launceston High School and spoke to the social studies teachers there and asked for their assistance and they were able to put together some curriculum materials for the Year 9 and 10 students.
“Beth also wrote to every high school in Australia, sent them the curriculum materials and received an incredible response of various forms of artwork.
“The question then was what to do with the material – this response of paintings, sculptures, poems and other media from the students – which we collected and created as an exhibition at the Pilgrim Church Hall.
“We then took the exhibition to Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney and the Wesley Uniting Church in Canberra.”
Among the responses was artwork from Queensland’s Hillbrook Anglican School student Mitchell Donaldson based on the use of poles as part of a memorial remembering the 353 people lost at sea.
The memorial based on that concept now stands on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, telling every person who visits the story of 353 asylum seekers who never got the chance to call Australia home.
Rod says there was one one lesson he hadn’t expected to take out of the exercise.
“We got an incredible response and it changed how I thought about Year 9 and 10 boys, because I had always seen them as standing on Melbourne trams with their shirts hanging out and bags on the ground, getting in the way and talking loudly, but what we received were highly sensitive and compassionate responses to this tragedy and I was incredibly moved by them,” he says.
“I found that immensely encouraging and humbling, because I had misjudged them. It shows what young people are capable of when they are given the opportunity to express themselves without fear or favour.
“They opened my eyes to the capacity of young people to see a vision for Australia different to the one our so-called leaders were giving us.”
Rod is now retired and lives in Melbourne, but retains contact with many of the people who travelled with him on that long journey to ensure those SIEV-X asylum seekers would never be forgotten.
“It began with a very small group of us and so many people then came on board and gave of themselves so generously and, in that sense, it was immensely satisfying,” he says.
“Even today, the memorial is being maintained by a faith-based working group who have volunteered to care for it, renovate the poles when necessary, and visit the site to welcome visitors and continue to tell the story. This continues the impetus that made it all possible in the beginning.
“People donated time and expertise and it was an uprising of ordinary people. It wasn’t a project that had high-flying supporters, or victims who were in the public eye, it all happened because people allowed their compassion to overflow.
“It’s certainly one of the things I feel most satisfied about being a part of.
“An important dimension of that, for me, was that it was people working together, nobody was there to do anything that would bring kudos to themselves. It had a life and momentum all of its own, it grew by itself and it brought out the best in many Australians.”