Case Study

Every boat is the first boat

Case study

Fifty people, fifteen of them children, died in the wreckage of a small boat, the Janga on December 15, 2010, at Rocky Point, off the coast of Christmas Island in Australia’s Indian Ocean Territory. Twenty of the dead remain unknown.

‘Migrants do not only die at sea, but through a strategic use of the sea … [E]ven when they drown following a shipwreck or starve while drifting in currents, there is nothing “natural” about their deaths.’

Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani,  Liquid Traces

‘I believe that Australia’s intelligence-based and still largely secret border protection system must itself carry a large share of responsibility when people die at sea whose lives could have been saved under different BPC [Border Protection Command] operational doctrines and protocols.’

Tony Kevin, Submission to ‘Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers’

‘Over the past 14 years Australia has emerged as one of the vanguard sites in the globalizing transformation of power that is the embrace of border security; Australia’s story is not only an Australian story. We see analogous processes taking shape and burrowing into the socius across the world: the USA, Europe, and Israel are three conspicuous cases.’

Peter Chambers, Shipwreck with Spectator

Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.


Those known to have drowned include:

Fatemah Baghaie, Khedier Eidan Madhi, Khoshqhadam Amini, Hassan Shahvari, Ali Khedier Eidan, Afssaneh Abdullahi-Meher, Haifa Bawy, Mehran Zareh, Fawzeya Bawy, Fatemah Tayari, Mahan Shahvari, Shekooh Taromi Nejad Sheerazy, Mariam Shahvari, Ahmed Oday Al Khafaji, Nasrollah Akbari, Mariam Fakri Kadum Al Khafaji, Maryam Zareh, Elmira Khorshidi, Javed Shirvani, Soha Zareh, Sam Hussain Hussaini, Zahra Median Ibrihimi, Khalil Behzadpour, Abbas Akhondy, Mehrdad Karbavi, Malektaj Karimi, Reza Gandomi, Kobra Davary Yekta, Oday Rashed Mohammed Hassan Alsalman and Farhad Akhlaghi Shaikhdoost.

Those suspected to have drowned include:

Nahaye Ahmad Mohammed Bawy, Esraa Eidan Mahdi, Siamak Khorshidi, Koorosh Khorshidi, Zaman Ali Hesnawi, Maryam Hosseini, Nazar Elebrahemi, Kamran Abdollahi Mehr, Abbas Ody Rashed Salman, Hana Sabz Zadee, Mahsa Akbari, Mohammad Reza Sardari, Ali Al Khafagy, Abdul Amir Sadati, Kathm Bediri, Somieh Aram, Hossein Abdollahi Koushki, Hossein Nabati, Naser Hosseini, Abouzar Hasanzadeh. 

A Boat Called The Janga

A pencil drawing of a hand reaching out of the ocean, it grasps the end of a rope that is dangling from the sky, however the rope breaks in the centre. In the background, a boat can be seen sinking in the ocean with birds flying above it. A heart shape floats in the sky and a bird soars upwards in front of it.

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‘SIEV 221’, Refugee Art Project. Artist: Hadi. 

Fifty people, including fifteen children, died in the wreckage of the Janga off the coast of Christmas Island, in Australia’s Indian Ocean Territory, at daybreak on December 15, 2010. Of the ninety-two people on board, only thirty-nine of the Iranian, Iraqi and stateless asylum seekers would survive, along with three Indonesian crew members. 

In official parlance the boat is known as SIEV 221, the two hundred and twenty-first in a sequence of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels since 2001. Like the numbering of their passengers in the immigration detention system, the numbering of boats is part of the dehumanising of asylum seekers and refugees that is a key feature of Australia’s Border Protection regime.

In defiance of the objectifying seriality which makes each boat part of an interchangeable sequence of suspicion, this case study preserves the original names of wrecked and lost boats wherever possible. We consider each boat in  all its singularity, the bearer of myriad hopes and lives, rather than as a nameless and faceless object of threat. In this sense, every boat is the first boat.

‘SIEV is the Customs Command abbreviation for “Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel.” This label is the first act of regimentation and dehumanisation when an asylum seeker boat arrives in Australian waters. If the vessel has a “real” name, it will not be made public. Instead, Customs gives the boat a nickname with starting letters in alphabetical order: the first boat in a year will have a name starting with “A”, and so on. In addition, Customs as well as Immigration since 2001 tag the boat with the acronym SIEV, followed by a number. SIEV-221 was the 221st boat arriving on our shores since this type of counting began in 2001’.

Tony Kevin

‘It seems they didn’t care about us’: The politics of safety

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The endless shadow of SIEV X: Survivor testimony from the feature documentary by Anthem.

‘A genuine desire to prevent another SIEV X, and other more recent mass losses of life, would call for, amongst other things, a commitment to adequate monitoring and rescue processes. The focus on a punitive banning of all boat arrivals indicates that it is rather the wishful sinking and wishful drowning of asylum seekers that underwrites the refugee policies of our two main parties.’

  Suvendrini Perera, 2016

‘If the Navy could have come a little bit closer to the rocks to save people  … I don’t know what happened but one speed boat it came to save only one of the people, one person, then going back to the Navy boat, smoking and looking, but then staying there for a while before they came back. They could have picked up seven or eight people at one time [but] they didn’t do so. It seems they didn’t care about us. If they had been quicker, only by two or three minutes, they would have saved the people … We owe our lives to the people of Christmas Island, not the Australian Navy. The life jackets they threw us made us to survive.’

Hassan, a survivor from the Janga, interviewed by Linda Briskman and Michelle Dimasi (2011, 257)

 ‘There is no domestic or international expectation or obligation that BPC (Border Protection Command) or other Australian assets will be postured for the purpose of saving SIEVs that may place themselves in dangerous situations … it is plain that Australia does not have and cannot have any legal, moral or other obligation to ensure safe passage for vessels illegally entering Australian waters.’

Commonwealth Submission to the Janga Inquest, quoted, 44


Letting Die at Sea and the Crimes of Peace

A scene unfolds where a boat is being violently pulled towards the coast by strong waves; a crash is imminent. A lone figure stands at the bottom of the frame, watching the scene unfold in horror. As dark clouds loom above, the person cries and screams, unable to intervene.

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Horror, Refugee Art Project, Exile Series. Artist: ‘R’.

The wreck of the Janga is one of several fatalities at sea in which several hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their lives in the waters surrounding Australia. The term ‘wishful sinking’ was coined by Ghassan Nakhoul to describe the haste with which the government declared boats missing (Nakhoul, 2011, 119-121). Over the years, ‘wishful sinking’ has taken on more sinister undertones, to suggest the ways in which the deaths of asylum seekers at sea were placed at the heart of state policies of ‘deterrence’, policies which in fact served to render those lives more at risk of dying at sea.

This case study situates the deaths of those on the Janga against the deaths at sea of many thousands more trying to reach Europe. The border, in both these instances, operates differentially as a set of racialised legal and political forces, drawing lines in the sea, funneling the movements of people and entrapping them in conditions that too often prove lethal. Under Australia’s regime of ‘Border Protection’, saving other lives in some other place in some yet to be realized future rationalizes the letting drown of lives that are directly before us. Taking the Janga as its starting point, this case study maps a recent Australian history of letting die at sea, one that both connects with and diverges from deaths at the borders of other settler states.

Thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, over two decades, are not misfortunate accidents, inevitable fatalities, acts of God or of nature. They are crimes of peace.’ 

Maurizio Albahri, Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border (2015)


The Fatal Morning

View from above of a boat being pulled by waves towards a rocky cliff face about to crash.

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SIEV 221, No.322, 2014. Artist: Euan Graham.

Neither the existing resources on Christmas Island nor those of Border Protection Command [BPC] were effective in helping those aboard the Janga. It is difficult to conclude other than that the safety of asylum seekers and the provision of resources for rescuing those at risk were a lesser priority. It was island residents who immediately came to the rescue, desperately trying to help by flinging life jackets and ropes to those flailing in the water.

From the cliffs above, residents first observed the Janga’s approach into Flying Fish Cove, on the Eastern side of Christmas Island, shortly after 5 a.m on December 15. The churning waters below the cliffs were likened by some to the inside of a washing machine. By 6 a.m. many residents had phoned emergency numbers to report the boat in distress.

Those on board the Janga also made desperate calls for help to emergency numbers in Australia, to no avail.  At least six calls were logged, but officers at the police call centre in WA seemingly did not comprehend the desperate cries for help.

Two Border Protection Command vessels, HMAS Pirie and ACV Triton, were on duty at Christmas Island that morning, tasked with patrolling the waters on the east of the island. Aboard the Triton were 108 asylum seekers who had been intercepted near the territory of Ashmore Reef (whose excision from the Australian migration zone has since been deemed illegal). The Pirie was monitoring another intercepted asylum seeker boat, assigned the number SIEV 220,  with 8 asylum seekers aboard.

The Janga’s voyage to Christmas Island took place in a charged climate in which BPC was highly alert to the possibility of several boat arrivals, and in a political environment in which each new asylum seeker boat attracted high levels of attention and blame. Yet none of the resources of BPC were devoted to ensuring the safety of possible boat arrivals. Rather, the priorities of the government and BPC were focused on the surveillance and interception of boats.



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 Vigil by Tracey Moffatt – Biennale di Venezia (2017) 


‘The television news story about the asylum-seeker boat that crashed on the Christmas Island shoreline back in 2010 is a horror … The boat, carrying mainly Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, disintegrated in rough seas before our eyes. It is a tragedy that has haunted me since … We can never fathom the desperation of the people who got onto that awful boat and crossed the horizon and tried to make it to some sort of freedom in Australia. The smashing of that rotten wooden boat is symbolic of how borders around the world are disintegrating. The old world is out, the new world is coming in and borders cannot stay closed’.

Tracey Moffatt

‘Before our eyes’

A boat is sinking. Three people balance on top of or cling to the section that remains above the surface. Waves crash around them.

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Vigil, 2017, video still. Artist: Tracey Moffatt.

As the Janga broke up in the churning seas early that morning, horrified residents watched from the cliffs above, powerless to intervene. This is the first asylum seeker boat to have been destroyed before the eyes of Australians on shore. Thousands of others watched the footage later on television.  Among them was the artist Tracey Moffatt who used the images as a  central motif in her artwork for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in  2017.

Moffatt’s short film, Vigil, which draws on footage of the Janga, is part of a larger work, My Horizon, a complex meditation on Australia’s temporal and spatial borders and the stories of Indigenous families broken up and displaced, dispersed from their country as their borders are overrun by war and their children are forcibly separated from their mothers. Through images of the Janga, My Horizon connects today’s global displacement of peoples with the histories of Indigenous Australians made refugees in their own land.


‘The outside coming in’

This photo provides a view of a rectangular, grey clad building from across a small river, framed by tree branches. Five small boats drift along the waterway, only one of which has people on board.  'Tracey Moffatt My Horizon' is written on the left side of the front facing facade. On one panel of the facade, which is marked by a grid, the face of a white woman with a startled gaze appears as if she is looking out of the building's window. She appears to be looking with concern towards the boats that are filling the river.

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Tracey Moffatt in the Australia Pavilion, VIGIL 2017 from the series Passage 2017. Photo: John Gollings.

‘Walls of barbwire, sheets of steel, bricks, stones…and the prisons we construct in the mind to keep out others require constant vigilance …Godlike, we have become an army of watchers, to anxiously guard ourselves against a world of strangers.  Privilege stares suspiciously out of self-erected watch towers … Not on our watch, we say.’

Alexis Wright, ‘Odyssey of the Horizon’, 2017

Moffatt’s Vigil employs images of the Janga’s break-up to construct what she describes as ‘a blatant commentary on “race”’ by juxtaposing them with ‘images of white movie stars gazing out of windows at dark-skinned people arriving on boats.’

Moffat’s decision to use images of Hollywood actors as the spectators of the boatwreck emphasizes the cultural and racial norms of Australia’s self-identification as a nation of white citizens. Her use of ‘white movie stars’ references iconic performances of whiteness and exposes the unambiguous racism of fears and phobias directed at the arrival of asylum seeker boats (Perera 2017).

Through its heighted visuals and increasingly frantic sound track, Vigil generates a sense of crisis and urgency, reinforcing Moffatt’s statement that the shattering of the boat mirrors the inevitable disintegration of racial as well as geographical borders, despite the vigilance of this array of white watchers.  As the film reaches its climax, the cuts between shots become more and more rapid, while the containing frame of the window becomes increasingly less effective in insulating the watchers from the scenes of horror outside. The film ends with a brief shot of an empty blue horizon before the dissolving into a blank white screen.


‘The borders cannot stay closed’: Christmas Islanders’ response to asylum seekers

Childrens toys are left at a memorial on the top of a rocky cliff. Leaves grow around and over the toys. A large wave crashes at the base of the cliff.

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Children’s Memorial, made by children from Christmas Island, ABC Background Briefing, 2011. Photo: Wendy Carlisle.

‘When we studied geography, our teachers never showed us Christmas Island … If we look at a world map, Christmas Island is hiding in the map.’

17 year old Hazara refugee

Christmas Island is a racially ambiguous space: in but not of Australia, it is situated on a racial, political and geographical fault line (Pugliese 2009).  Until the 1950s, Christmas Islanders, descendants of Malay and Chinese indentured workers brought to the island, lived on the other side of the Australian border. Ownership of the territory was transferred to Australia by the British ahead of their approaching withdrawal from Singapore. From the outset, then, Christmas Island was an anomaly in White Australia, marking a racial and geographical divide from the space of Asia. This status was underlined when it became one of the first territories to be excised from the Australian migration map.

It is no coincidence that Christmas Island is also the scene of recent Australian crises of the border, such as Captain Arne Rinnan’s bold act of sailing the Tampa into Flying Fish Cove in 2001 in defiance of a prohibition by the Australian government. The Islanders’ reception of asylum seekers has always been more empathetic than that of the majority on the mainland.  The night before the navy shipped the Tampa asylum seekers out of Australian waters, thus initiating the Pacific Solution, the Christmas Islanders farewelled them with an outburst of fireworks in a defiant show of support (Jameson, 2003: 13).

As the Janga broke up, Christmas Islanders made tireless efforts to help the people struggling in the water.

‘For a short time, a stranger became a loved one’

Chris Su, Christmas Island Liaison Officer on the rescue efforts mounted by islanders to save those aboard the Janga (Briskman and Dimasi 2011, 61)

Christmas Islanders: Love and care for the stranger

A large group of people gather along the SIEV memorial which is comprised of a series of white poles of varying heights that snake around a parkland and edge of a lake.

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The SIEV X Memorial being erected by a group of volunteers, 2006.

‘Desert and island peoples know all too well that with one shift of the wind, you or I could be the passing seafarer, the shipwrecked sailor, the persecuted stranger. Understood in this way, the practice of hospitality, the host-guest relationship, is the central bond of civility—a reciprocal relationship, implying obligations on both sides, and based on an understanding that we are all, in certain circumstances, potentially “the other.”‘

Arnold Zable (2016)

Despite the effort to recuperate them into a national narrative of Australian heroism, the efforts made by Christmas Islanders to rescue asylum seekers is perhaps better situated in the context of their own ambiguous status in Australia and in the broader context of philoxenia, the unconditional extension of hospitality towards strangers, theorized by the writer and activist Arnold Zable: ‘First the stranger is welcomed, clothed and fed, and given a roof over their head.  Only then are they asked questions; only then are they asked for their name and business.’

The Christmas Islanders’ spontaneous demonstration of love and friendship towards asylum seekers echoes many other acts of philoxenia:

  • Indonesian fishers who rescued SIEV X survivors after their long hours clinging to the wreckage in the water 
  • Betty Cuthbert , a former Olympic Champion who, from her wheelchair led protests and memorialisations for those lost in the wreckage of SIEV X
  •  Acehnese fishers who rescued almost 700 asylum seekers in 2015 and brought them to their village
  • Emilia Kamvisi a grandmother from Lesvos, Greece, nominated for the Nobel Prize for showing hospitality towards refugees
  • (Denmark), prosecuted for offering a lift and some coffee to Syrian refugees
  • Cédric Herrou (France), prosecuted for housing and helping refugees at the border
  • Maria Ochoa (Tucson), founder of a group which patrols the southern Arizona border helping those in need of water, food and medical aid
  • Domenico Lucano, Mayor of the small Calabrian village of Riace, where thousands of refugees have been welcomed into the everyday lives of the locals


In this painting a boat drifts towards a rocky coast, silhouettes of people can be seen on board. Peoples' faces are inserted into six squares above the boat, which are juxtaposed above waves in the background.

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Uncertain Journeys 322, mixed media on paper, 2014. Artist: Euan Graham.

‘First, why did Christmas Island not have a functioning local maritime rescue capability, in a season when asylum-seeker boats were coming down in large numbers, in all weathers, and at irregular frequencies? Second, why had the two major Commonwealth Border Protection Command (BPC) vessels then at the island, HMAS Pirie and ACV Triton, been left stationed since 20 December and overnight, on the south-east side of the small hilly island, out of radar surveillance range despite the medium-rated risk of more boats arriving from the north-west, to supervise routine procedures … at a time when bad weather had prevented air surveillance for four days? Third, why the unexplained delays in the BPC command chain on the day, from the time 5.20 am when people walking on the clifftop first sighted the dangerously drifting SIEV221, as close as 100 metres to the cliffs, to the time when rescue crews reached the disaster scene nearly two hours later?

Tony Kevin, author of Reluctant Rescuers, submission on the Janga

The Inquest

Front page of the Coroners finding in the Inquest into the 30 deaths of people who drowned on the Janga. Included here are the names: Fatemah Baghaie, Khedier Eidan Madhi, Khoshqhadam Amini, Hassan Shahvari, Ali Khedier Eidan, Afssaneh Abdullahi-Meher, Haifa Bawy, Mehran Zareh, Fawzeya Bawy, Fatemah Tayari, Mahan Shahvari, Shekooh Taromi Nejad Sheerazy, Mariam Shahvari, Ahmed Oday Al Khafaji, Nasrollah Akbari, Mariam Fakri Kadum Al Khafaji, Maryam Zareh, Elmira Khorshidi, Javed Shirvani, Soha Zareh, Sam Hussain Hussaini, Zahra Median Ibrihimi, Khalil Behzadpour, Abbas Akhondy, Mehrdad Karbavi, Malektaj Karimi, Reza Gandomi, Kobra Davary Yekta, Oday Rashed Mohammed Hassan Alsalman and Farhad Akhlaghi Shaikhdoost.

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Page 1 of the Inquest finding into the deaths of persons who were on board a vessel known as The Janga (SIEV 221) which sank off the coast of Christmas Island on 15 December 2010.  These are the names of 30 people whose bodies were located and identified.

In February 2012, Coroner Alastair Hope handed down his findings from an inquest on the the deaths of 30 people whose bodies were recovered and identified and another 20 people whose bodies were never found. The findings were predictable and did not address the key questions raised by Kevin and others regarding official responsibility for the safety of asylum seeker lives at sea.

The testimony of those held in detention who testified that they had notified guards well in advance of the expected arrival of the  boat was dismissed as  unreliable. However, Hope did affirm that:

  • The boat was first spotted by Christmas Island residents who happened to look out of their windows that morning rather than surveillance from Border Protection Command.
  • Neither the Australian Federal Police (AFP) nor the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service (VMRS) had access to a suitable vessel which could be used in rescue operations in those weather conditions which meant there was no effective capability on the island to respond to the emergency.
  • It was the responsibility of the Commonwealth to ensure there were suitable vessels on the island for an emergency at sea response at all times.


A place of tragedy and trauma: the treatment of survivors

Mounted on a low concrete plinth is the damaged boat propeller of the SIEV 221. Inscribed on a plaque are the words 'SIEV 221 15 December 2010. We will reflect on this day with sadness. The loss of each person`s life diminishes our own because we are part of humankind. As You Read This Please Remember All Asylum Seekers Who Have Attempted This Treacherous Journey'. Small, smooth stones are scattered around the memorial. The ocean can be seen through a chain-linked fence in the background.

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SIEV 221 Memorial, Christmas Island, 2015. Photo: Renee Schipp.

The Janga represents the largest loss of human life in Australian waters during peace time in close to 120 years.

In the devastating aftermath of the Janga’s wreckage, then Shadow Immigration Minister and current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, commented that the Federal Government and taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for survivors to be flown from Christmas Island, where they were being held in detention, to Sydney, in order to attend the funerals of their loved one . Then Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce likewise opined that the price of compassion is ‘not limitless’. After a public outcry, twenty-one survivors and family members were flown from Christmas Island to attend funerals in Sydney, only to be returned within three days to Christmas Island, a site plagued with traumatic memories for them. The group included orphaned children, such as 8 year-old Seena who had extended family in Sydney. Seena could have remained with his relatives following the traumatic loss he suffered if not for the official determination to demonstrate a relentlessly punitive attitude towards asylum seekers, regardless of age or circumstance.

When they arrived at the local memorial service held for the dead, the Christmas Island community were shocked to see that no survivors were present. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship [DIAC] evidently refused to allow survivors and community members who had assisted in the rescue efforts to meet and share their collective grief (Dimasi, Joint Select Committee Hansard). The mingling of local communities and asylum seekers even in the context of an offical ceremony of mourning was evidently something to be prevented.

Several years later, in 2014, when survivors and family members sued the Australian government for negligence, Prime Minister Scott Morrison derided them as ungrateful and unreasonable and misrepresented their claims (see Ibrahimi & ors v Commonwealth of Australia (No 9) [2017]).



‘How long do you think a wife and a child can exist in water like that, even with a life jacket?…We actually owe our lives, and the reason we survived, is the people of the island, not the Australian Navy…We have suffered enough and we can’t sleep during the night because as soon as we shut our eyes, all these scenes and memories come to our eyes…Who’s going to answer for that?’

Testimony from a survivor of the Janga who lost his wife and child

‘Now after this tragedy, I am a helpless woman who don’t know your language, don’t know if my husband is dead or alive. Don’t know what will happen for my son who is terribly in danger, don’t know what should do with my little daughter when she is asking for her father and brother, don’t know how to deal with the surrounding issues and most important of all don’t know how I can satisfy myself that my dear husband died, while my feeling, my intuition and other evidences testify he is alive’

Maryam, a survivor,  in a written communication, April 16, 2011, quoted by Briskman and Dimasi, 258-9

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‘Call them Home?’, 2016. Artist: Marziya Mohammedali. Photo: Michelle Bui.


‘They are desperate to reaching Australia, actually. We know of this danger in front of them but the danger is more there, you know? That’s why he comes here and wants to go to Australia.’

Ali Poya, brother of Azatula, whose body was recovered from the shipwreck

 A Fatal Sequence: The Barokah

An illustration in which a young child, perhaps a toddler, drifts gracefully below the water's surface. The child holds on to a folded paper boat with one hand which floats above the surface, carrying the child along with it. The sky is solid black and the child is the sole figure in the vast blue sea.

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Artist: Mahmoud Salameh.

‘I will never forget the face of a man who said: ‘I want to come but I can’t swim.’ He knew it meant that one by one they would let go and be swallowed by the sea.’ 

Yaser Naseri, survivor of the Barokah

‘Refugees, as they entrust their lives to the angel of the ocean, reaffirm their decision to leave behind intolerable lives; to choose a chance for life on the sea over living death on dry land. In doing so they assume the responsibility to hope, a belief in the promise of the future. Despite the covenants entered into by Australia as a state priding itself on its civilised values, wishful sinking policies are a denial of that responsibility and that hopeful future for refugees.’

Suvendrini Perera, ‘The Fantasy of Wishful Sinking‘, 2016

The Janga is one of a trail of boats to have been lost in the perilous journey from Indonesia. Those on board face not only the dangers of the sea voyage, but the active efforts of governments to prevent their arrival on Australian shores, efforts that amplify the perils of the ocean.

Almost exactly a year after the Janga, on 17 December 2011,  a boat called the Barokah capsized south of Prigi Beach in Java. The boat carried 250 people seeking asylum, about 90 of whom were women and children. Most had fled Iran and Afghanistan. The majority of the 47 survivors spent hours in the water clinging to debris and were rescued by passing fishermen rather than state authorities.

Parallel stories

‘There are more parallels here with SIEV X: a circuitous route from a long way off, yet a sinking location finally not far outside Indonesian contiguous waters, far from Australian waters, and in the Indonesian search and rescue zone; and plausibly accessible to Indonesian fishing boat rescue…The events have a similar smell to them as SIEV X: of a possible Indonesian police (INP) illegal disruption operation, from a remote location, highly profitable and sending a terrible deterrent message to others. 

Tony Kevin on the sinking of the Barokah 

Following the Barokah’s sinking, customs officials told a Senate Estimates hearing that Indonesia had initially declined Australia’s offer to help with the search and rescue mission. However, an official incident timeline, obtained under freedom information laws, revealed that BASARNAS, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, had in fact asked AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) to coordinate the rescue response and AMSA had initially refused. For two days, while men, women and children struggled to survive in the water, Indonesian and Australian authorities did nothing. By the time AMSA agreed to assist, it was too late: over 200 people had drowned.

The survivors were detained in Indonesia; subsequently some of them again attempted to reach Australia by boat. Tony Kevin, a highly knowledgeable commentator on maritime operations, noted that the Barokah’s sinking recalled the infamous case of SIEV X in which 353 asylum seekers and refugees, the bulk of them women and children, died. The fate of SIEV X, and  the many unknowns that surround it, continue to haunt Australia’s treatment of refugees.

‘At first I couldn’t believe that our boat has sank, but I saw a toy is coming from the inside of the boat; it is coming by water. When it comes close to me, I realised that no, that was not a toy. That was a kid.’

Esmat Adine, Hazara asylum seeker who survived the sinking of the Barokah

A Fatal Sequence: The Agrabinta sinking

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Hussein’s Homecoming, SBS Dateline, 2013.

Nearly two years after the loss of the Barokah, at the end of September 2013, at least fifty more people drowned off the coast of Java near Agrabinta beach, on a boat bound for Christmas Island. A large proportion of them were children. There are discrepancies in the accounts of when Australian authorities were first contacted about the boat in trouble; however what is clear is that AMSA (Australia) unsuccessfully attempted to transfer coordination of the rescue effort to BASARNAS (Indonesia). The boat subsequently went into distress resulting in a significant loss of lives. This was the first known fatal crossing under the Coalition government elected earlier that month.

‘No one should take that risk. Everyone must know that Australia does not want to welcome anyone.’ 

Hussein Khoder, survivor of boat sinking, lost his wife and eight children

One man, Hussein Khoder, lost his wife and all of his eight children when the boat sank. The sentiments he expressed on his return to his village in Lebanon could be said to represent the success of Australia’s sinister ‘deterrence’ policy.

‘The Journey of Death’

A timber boat is held up by a hand that starts to crush the boat in half.

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Crushing Hope. Artist: Sina Pourhovayed.

In the aftermath of the sinking off Agrabinta beach, Sheikh Ali Khoder, one of Hussein’s relatives, powerfully articulated the lethal nature of Australia’s border policies:

‘Australia, shame on you, shame on you, that your new rulers have reached the stage of killing people and making this part of their election campaign.’

Sheikh Ali Khoder

Sheikh Ali Khoder’s comments reportedly stirred controversy,  prompting him to later apologise,  citing misinformation about the location where the  sinking occurred. His apology was no doubt more sincere than the shallow sympathies expressed by the Australian government to those who lost loved ones. The real controversy, however, lies not with Sheikh Ali Khoder’s assessment of Australian politics at the time, but with the politics  that compel people to undertake ‘journeys of death’ in the absence of other avenues to resettlement. As is often the case, the outrage against  Khoder was grossly misplaced. Whether on the Australian or Indonesian side of the line in the sea, indubitably the deaths of asylum seekers have been consistently capitalised upon in Australian election campaigns.


Those known to have drowned include:

Hasmat Hussain (24 years), Kamal Hussain (25-30 years), Gulfam Hussain aka Sayed Gulfam Hussain (29 years), Zulffaqar Ali aka Bhutto Ali (37 years), Quambar Ali (30-40 years), Khalilullah Ibrahimi aka Khalil Rahimi (17 years), Kyleni Sabir Hussain (24 years), Sarfaraz Hussain (20 years), Abbas Nadiri (16 years), Intezar Hussain (23 years), Mazhar Abbas (15 years), Nazir Ahmed aka Ahmad (22 years), Syed Shakeel Mehmood (20 years), Asad Hussain (23 years) and Ghulam Mohammad (23 years).

‘In two minutes the boat is full of water. I saw myself in the water and realised all were dying.’ 

Survivor referred to as KBA10 during the inquest

‘What concerns me greatly now is the evidence of a systemic doctrine, particularly inside the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)—what you might call a systemic culture of scepticism of asylum seeker distress claims. A spirit of “We better wait and see what happens to this, if they’re really in distress, because we know very often that they’re not”.’

Tony Kevin

A Fatal Sequence: The Kaniva

The composition is split into two horizontally. In the top image a large wave threatens to crash down on a small timber boat. In the bottom image, the boat has capsized and only the front tip remains above the surface.

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Refugee Art Project. Artist: Murtaza Ali Jafari.

During World Refugee Week 2012, the Kaniva sailed into international waters, north-west of Christmas Island. On board were 210 men and boys from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, along with four Indonesian crew members. Over half of them drowned after the fishing boat went into distress. The bodies of 17 people were recovered and subject to a coronial inquest held in Western Australia. In his opening address, Counsel assisting the Coroner marked that the wooden boat looked old and terminate-ridden, was overcrowded and had an insufficient number of life jackets. At least one member of the crew abandoned the boat early in the voyage.

Such factors must be understood as part of what politicians have come to refer to as ‘the people smugglers’ business model’. As Kevin points out, this ‘model’  is one produced collaboratively between states and smugglers: as states are known to intercept and destroy boats and imprison crew members, smugglers resort to ever more unseaworthy boats and employ crew members considered expendable (often the elderly or children), or who are likely to abscond. This ‘business model’ is one that compounds the dangers for asylum seekers while extending the profits of the smugglers and allows states to implement policies of deterrence under the guise of ‘saving lives’.

White Racial Logic: ‘Normal Refugee Patter’ and the meaningless ‘noise’ of refugee distress calls

People on the Kaniva made sixteen distress calls to Australian authorities over a fifteen hour period, the first at 7:52pm on 19 June and the last at 11:16am on 20 June, some seventeen hours before the boat sank. At the inquest, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s manager for search and rescue operations, Alan Lloyd, described earlier distress calls as ‘normal refugee patter’. Operative in Lloyd’s terming of the refugees’ distress calls as ‘normal refugee patter’ is a form of symbolic violence that would, in turn, lead to the fatal physical violence of shipwreck and drowning. ‘Normal refugee patter’ transmutes the desperate distress calls of the refugees into insignificant chatter. At work here is a white racial logic that recodes the refugees’ urgent linguistic articulations into meaningless ‘noise’  that can be simply disregarded as so much non-sense. Meaningless ‘noise’ is the ‘norm’ of refugee talk. This is the violent logic of whiteness at work: people of colour, even in the most distressing and, as proved to be the fact, fatal of circumstances are rendered into inarticulate subjects who merely vocalise unintelligible ‘noise.’

‘[At the inquest] During one particularly harrowing exchange, I noticed a man sitting alone at the back with his head in his hands. He was a survivor. I wondered, when the video from the surveillance aircraft was played, how he felt to see the tiny damaged ship bobbing low in the water a day before it sank. Or hear the repeated calls for assistance dismissed as “normal refugee patter”?’

Victoria Martin, Waiting for Mayday

Viewed in this racialising light, Lloyd’s summary conclusion — ‘Unfortunately, refugee vessels tend to follow a script’ and thus the vessel was not in distress — is inscribed with its own internal logic: the norm for refugees is to ‘follow a script’ of meaningless ‘patter’; thus there is no maritime emergency, only the usual refugee chatter that can be complacently dismissed and disregarded.

Lloyd, in his final assessment of the situation, proceeded to frame the information provided by passengers as misleading and untrustworthy, thereby reinforcing the narrative that asylum seekers are really malingerers somehow trying to ‘play the system’. What in fact emerges in the context of these coronial inquests is the evidencing of multiple levels of violence: symbolic and physical violences that intersect to produce lethal effects at sea and, after the fact of their death, the perpetuation of regimes of symbolic violence that disrespect and denigrate the refugee dead.

The apparent indifference of authorities to the scale of the suffering and death that transpired on the sinking of the Kaniva was evident to advocates who witnessed the inquest proceedings.

Letting Drown

At a protest outside a detention centre, two people hold a banner that reads, 'Let Them Land! Let Them Stay! End Mandatory Detention. No Offshore Processing'.

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Northam Convergence, protest outside Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre, 2013. Photo: Alex Bainbridge for GreenLeft Weekly.

Recent cases of denying rescue or the ability to land safely to people seeking asylum by boat belong in a historical continuum of lethal indifference. In several documented cases, and perhaps in countless others that have not been reported, government or commercial vessels have refused to assist or respond to distress calls in order to evade the obligations and responsibilities that would be invoked through doing so. Often this has been at the expense of peoples’ lives. Even when the distress calls of refugees are considered legitimate, they may still be rendered as un-human subjects whose lives are not worth the inconvenience of saving.

  • In May 1980, a boat carrying Vietnamese refugees broke down and began to leak off the coast of Singapore. A Singaporean navy ship approached, but refused to tow the boat to safety or assist in repairing the engine. In the following days, other navy vessels surveilled the boat, but when it began to sink they stood by without offering assistance. Even after all the passengers were in the water the patrol boat refused them permission to board and pulled away. Several people drowned, though some survivors were later rescued by another vessel (Schaffer, 1980).

‘They did not want to hear us yell’

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‘No Direction’, Syrian Stories, Australia, 2017, exhibited at VCA. Artist: Miream Salameh.

  • In another case, Vietnamese boat refugees flashed an SOS to the Australian naval vessel Vendetta. Australian sailors reportedly leaned over the rail to take photographs, but indicated they could not take the refugees aboard because their ship was on patrol. They provided them with some supplies and left. The following day the group counted 21 ships that passed without acknowledging their signals. 
  • In 2007, 27 people were forced to cling onto a tuna net for three days to survive after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean. The captain of the commercial fishing trawler that was towing the net refused to allow them to board. One survivor recalled, ‘When we began shouting that we could no longer continue clinging to the nets, the fishermen lengthened the tow ropes they did not want to hear us yell, nor did they want to let us aboard.’ 
  • In 2013, a group of more than 480 people, who were mostly from Syria, were in a boat that capsized south of Lampedusa. They had alerted Italian authorities that they were in distress as early as five hours before their ship sank, however authorities refused to intervene for several hours. 268 people including around 60 children drowned.  

‘Nope, nope, nope’: Stranded at Sea

A man holds a placard at a protest that reads 'Do turnbacks save lives? Nope, Nope, Nope!'. A couple of people stand around him and cars can be seen driving past on the road behind them.

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Rescue the Rohingya Protest, Boorloo (Perth), Whadjuk Noongar Country, 2015. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.

  • In 2015, it was reported that thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea, as countries in the region were unwilling to let them land. In response to this humanitarian crisis, when asked if Australia could resettle some of them, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded simply: ‘nope, nope, nope’. Contrary to its rhetoric of saving lives at sea, the actions of the Australian state represent a willingness to let people drown. Evidently, this attitude prevails across much of Europe and Asia as well.   
  • In November 2018, 76 people drowned when their boat sank off the coast of Sicily.  Despite being in close range to the dinghy before it capsized, a US navy ship, USS Trenton, ignored distress calls and failed to assist them until after they had sunk. A survivor stated, ‘We saw that ship, it was not far away…We saw the American flag. If they had rescued us when we were all still onboard, 76 people would not have died.’
  • In August 2019, fifteen people traveled on a dinghy from Libya to Malta. After they ran out of food and water, the passengers began to die on the boat. Mohammed Adam Oga, the sole survivor stated, “There were 15 of us on the boat and I am the only one alive…We saw many boats. We shouted, ‘Help, Help!’ We were waving and they were just passing. A helicopter came and left.’ 
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‘Call them Home?’, 2016. Artist: Marziya Mohammedali. Photo: Michelle Bui.


The unthinkable becomes thinkable

They died before they were punished.

Would they still be in detention

If they had set their weary feet on Australian shores?

Fleeing the beasts of our land,

They were devoured by the beasts of the sea,

Politicians, who fight not for freedom,

but to be the gatekeepers of our dusty desert hell.


146 children silently float on the ocean,

Like beautiful water lillies that do not grow.

They are asleep. Peaceful. Forever.


Mohsen Soltany Zand, ‘SIEV X’ in Inside Out


The boat that came to be known as SIEV X was officially excluded from its list of SIEVs by Australian authorities who at first insisted, wrongly, that it sank in Indonesian waters. The name SIEV X inserts the boat within the sequence of Australian asylum seeker boats despite this official denial, and also refers to the yet unsolved mysteries  attached to the deaths of the 353 lives lost in the sinking of the boat.

It is now established that the boat sank, not in Indonesian waters, but in international waters,  within the zone that was extensively patrolled and monitored by the Australian navy’s Operation Relex, under the regime of surveillance established by the Border Protection legislation of 2001 (Marr and Wilkinson 2003: 239-40; Kevin 2004: 95-100).

‘We had nothing to do with it, it sank, I repeat, sunk in Indonesian waters, not Australian waters’

John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia 1996 (cited in Kevin 2004: 96)

Although no trace of the boat was detected by Operation Relex, a Senate Committee established by a newly elected Labor government uncovered highly disturbing levels of knowledge about the boat by Australian officials and agents:

At no stage … will I break … the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS [Australian Secret Intelligence Service] or the AFP [Australian Federal Police]. But those protocols were not meant as a direct or indirect licence to kill. (Senator John Faulkner cited in Kevin 2004: 8)

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‘Well could we interfere with the boats?’ 

Juxtaposed against a solid black background is a heavy grey blanket, tied in several places as if it is wrapped around a human body that has been dumped in the depths of the ocean.

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End of Dreams, Pigment print on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag, 120cm x 90cm, Edition 1/7 + 2AE, 2015. Exhibited in Sink Without Trace. Artist: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

The Senate Inquiry into the sinking of SIEV X and the loss of 353 lives could not categorically rule out the role of Australia’s official ‘disruption’ program in causing the conditions for the sinking. Specifically,  the inquiry could not rule out:

  • that food was not provided to people aboard smuggling vessels
  • that sugar was not put into the fuel tanks of vessels carrying asylum seekers
  • that sand was not put into the engines of these vessels (Faulkner 2003: 6).

Then Senator John Faulkner, Chair of the inquiry, reported that at a meeting with officials,

Mr Ruddock [then Immigration Minister] allegedly asked in a joking tone, ‘Well could we interfere with the boats?’ Apparently in response, the Federal Agent Dixon reminded Mr Ruddock of obligations under Australian law. The conversation ended when Ruddock laughed the matter off and said it was just a concept in the air (Faulkner 2003: 8).

Ruddock’s later response was: ‘I have no formal recollections of any of those discussions which I am prepared to discuss’ (Faulkner 2003: 8).

‘Like dead birds in the water’: Temporary Protection Visas as Technologies of Deterrence

Six people, including an infant, are bobbing up and down in the ocean while wearing life-jackets, debris floats around them. Another three people are still holding onto a boat that is mostly capsized. People are waving their hands for help.

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12 Days in the Sea. Artist: Nasir Moradi.

The horror of the  sinking of SIEV X hit home in Australia because so many of the dead were children and women. Amal Basry, who became one of the most eloquent witnesses among the survivors, described the unforgettable sight of three infants who drowned in the very instant of their births, floating free from the bodies of their drowned mothers, ‘like dead birds in the water’. A photograph published on the front pages brought home the deaths of other children through the image of three young girls, sisters, who all perished together.

The large numbers of children and women among the dead (about 80% of those on board) is explained by the fact that many of those aboard were family members of men who had previously sought asylum by boat and had been granted three-year temporary protection visas (TPVs) to live in Australia. These visas do not allow for family reunion. Australia’s TPV policy thus can be seen to operate on the structural principle of breaking up families and disallowing them reunion except through unofficial means. The divisive TPVs emerge, then, as violent technologies of deterrence. Their brutal message is: ‘Come by boat and, even if you should be granted a visa, you will not be enabled to bring out your family.’

‘The ship of death’

The SIEV X memorial. Pictured are a series of white poles of varying heights emerging from a grassy park. The poles have small drawings wrapped around them.

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Poles leading to the south in the SIEV X Memorial, Canberra, 2014. Photo: Nick D.

‘They gave us no right to travel, and no right to bring our families to Australia … In Syria my family was facing economic pressures and were in danger as illegal refugees there. I was in Australia under pressure of a temporary protection visa. My family and I felt trapped and blocked and there seemed to be no solution but that they face the same fate as me.

They boarded the ship of death on their way to Australia. They left my life without a farewell; they went forever without return; we did not embrace, we could not say a final goodbye to each other.

They were gone without trace. Nowhere to visit them, when I miss them or when I want to talk to them, or buy them gifts and toys to play with. They have gone under the ocean. They did not find freedom in the place they went to. This is the folly of politics and rulers everywhere.’

Mohammad Hashim Abo Roma, reflecting on the anniversary of the SIEV X sinking

‘I want to ask John Howard. I want to ask the Minister for Immigration. I want to ask them: is that your humanity? Have your human qualities gone that low so you deprive a husband of his children and wife for three years?’

Ali Mahdi Al-Sobbi, quoted in ‘The Five Mysteries of SIEV X

‘It has been three years since the sinking of SIEVX but I am still in the water. I can still feel the dead woman whose body I clung to so I could keep afloat. I never saw her face, it was in the water but I talked to her all night. I prayed for her soul and she saved my life…The pain of SIEVX will not go away.’

Amal Basry, survivor of the SIEV X

The Testimony of Survivors

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‘Hope’, Ronin Films, 2008. Directed by Steve Thomas.

‘It was like the doors of Hell opening onto us, that moment when everyone was screaming.’

Amal Basry, survivor of the SIEV X

The survivors of SIEV X were returned to Jakarta, and after months of grieving, and with no opportunity to  meet or mourn with their remaining family members in Australia, they were eventually resettled in various third countries. Australia was the only country that imposed temporary protection visas on SIEV X survivors. The late Amal Basry was one of only 43 people who survived and was eventually reunited with her husband in Melbourne. She was courageously determined to speak of the horrors that she had witnessed when the boat sank. However, as Arnold Zable recounted, ‘The memory of the tragedy pursues her. On the 19th day of every month, Amal relives the sinking. Every day she glances at her watch, at about 3.10pm, and is seized by the memory of the boat capsizing.’ She finally gained permanent residency in Australia less than a year before she lost her life to cancer.

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Somebody died trying to have a life like mine, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 2014. Artist: Alex Seton.

A colonial ship with large sails crosses the ocean. In large, bold white print at the bottom of the poster are the words 'BOAT PEOPLE'.

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‘Boat People’ postcard.


Why they don’t want to remember

they come by boat, 

stealing land?

Why they don’t want to remember:

people in prisons, convicts – 

their families who they first called Australians? 

If they remember, 

maybe they will remember, 

we are human. 

A. (17 years – detained 13 months), published in Our Beautiful Voices (Writing Through Fences 2014)

Technologies of Sovereignty: White Panic

Emerging from a frame akin to an old TV screen is the face of a white actress with wide eyes and her mouth open in shock.

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Vigil still. Artist: Tracey Moffatt.

In 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard articulated  a declaration of absolute control over maritime borders that has since become a core tenet of government: ‘We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come’. The declaration activated specific Australian imaginaries of sovereignty to produce, through the body of a fictionalised enemy of the refugee, a climate of emergency and a mentality of siege. This state of emergency and siege provided the conditions for the exercise of a form of necropolitics in the case of asylum seekers arriving in boats (Mbembe 2004: 18) , ‘the right to kill, to allow to live or to expose to death’.

The technologies of sovereignty leading to practices of violence at the border since 2001  include:

  • calculated dehumanisation of people seeking asylum by boat
  • the excision of landing places and their deterritorialisation from the migration zone
  • militarised practices of surveillance, interception and enforced turnbacks of boats in mid-ocean
  • a neocolonial geopolitics that seeks to exploit Australia’s former colonies and protectorates and impoverished countries of the region


From the Kein Giang to the present

In this illustration a black boat drifts across grey waters as rain pours from heavy, dark clouds above and lightning flickers across the sky.

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Screenshot from ‘The Boat‘ webcomic, SBS, 2015. Artist: Matt Huynh.

‘Welcome on my boat. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.’ 

Lam Binh

Since the first group of people seeking asylum arrived by boat from Vietnam aboard the Kein Giang (KG 4435) on 26 April 1976, white panic has steadily increased. Carrying only five people – Lam Binh, his brother Lam Tac Tam and three friends – the boat ended up in Darwin Harbour in the ocean territories of the Larrakia people, despite little navigational experience or knowledge of Australia. Over the next five years, 2059 others arrived from Vietnam in similar circumstances and thousands more were resettled from refugee camps in neighbouring countries. 

The Kein Giang arrived in the years following the formal end of the White Australia policy. As Tuong Quang Luu notes, however: The White Australia Policy had been abolished. [But] The public opinion had not been turned around’. Opinion polls from the time indicate that generally people opposed allowing those who had arrived without authorisation to resettle in Australia. Yet strong political leadership by the two main parties managed to carry the day in allowing for the settlement of a modes number of refugees from Vietnam, around 60,000 people by 1982. 

In political and media discourse, a now familiar rhetoric began to emerge that was designed to undermine their asylum claims. Discussions of ‘genuine refugees’, ‘economic migrants’ and the need to enforce immigration laws created a divide between deserving and undeserving refugees, one which continues today. (Stevens, 2012).  


Technologies of Sovereignty and the Trepidation Continent

A map of Australia is overlayed with graphics including what appears to be high and low pressure zones, a fleet of asylum seeker boats from the south-west, a fleet of naval ships from the north-east and helicopters swarming down from the east. Militarised figures, representations of Indigenous people as well as native animals are pictured on the land. Words including 'Piss off!' and 'Not Welcome' are also written within Australia's borders.

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Guan Wei, Trepidation Continent #2, 2003, drawing on paper map, 68.5 x 82cm. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery.


The foundational scene of  White Australia is the arrival in what is now Sydney Harbour of ships bearing convicts from British jails. Invasion by sea is a phobia that underlies Australia’s self-conception as an island nation. The fears activated by the arrival of asylum seeking boats stem from these deep this geo-imaginary of insularity (Perera 2009).

The racial panic over boat arrivals reached new levels since the arrival of the Tampa in August 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre, and continued to intensify over the following years.

The doctrine of ‘Sovereign Borders’ adopted in the name of protecting the  nation from boat arrivals authorizes an array of policies, rhetorics and practices. The following screens explore these assertions of white sovereignty as well as the counter-practices and resistances they engender.


Technologies of Sovereignty: Dehumanisation

A banner reads '"They call us by number not name. I feel like something from another plant, not human." - N (detained on Nauru) #FreePoetry #EndMandatoryDetention'

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Banner featuring a quote from a woman detained on Nauru, painted as part of the Free Poetry Project held at an International Women’s Day Protest, Whadjuk Nyoongar Country (Perth), 2019. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.

After some others, my number was called: MEG45. I got used to that number eventually. They regarded us only as numbers, no more than that, and I had to set my name aside for a long time. When I was called, my ears started moving. My name, which was a part of my identity was of no use, and all day long, sometimes, nobody even once called me Behrouz.’ 

Behrouz Boochani,  ‘Becoming MEG45’

The process of objectification applied to boats, whose names are transformed into a sequence of so-called SIEVs, extends to the people who arrive on those boats. Through this dehumanising process, peoples’ names are replaced with ‘boat numbers’. Each person who seeks asylum in Australia by boat receives a five- or six-character identifier made up of the first three letters of the name given to the boat by Australian Customs, followed by digits denoting the order in which an individual descended the boat.

In 2013, a human rights advocate described his experience of visiting people at Wickham Point in Darwin and witnessing people being addressed by their allocated numbers rather than names: ‘I questioned a senior officer about this dehumanising practice on my way out of the centre. I told the officer I thought it was inappropriate and went against Serco policy. He responded that this was standard practice, and that asylum seekers “would be more embarrassed if we mispronounced their names.” He realised I wasn’t impressed and justified his statement: “It’s too hard to try to know everyone’s name – they move through the centre pretty quickly you know.”’

It has been reported that children who were detained on Nauru started identifying more by their boat numbers than their names due to the frequency with which they would be addressed with the number by detention centre staff.

Technologies of Sovereignty: Excising Australia

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Based on the excision zone map, 2007. See map and associated article.

From 2001, the Australian government began excising areas of land and sea from the ‘migration zone’ in order to prevent people seeking asylum by boat from accessing the same rights and visa application process, including merit reviews, to which those who arrive by plane are entitled under the Migration Act 1958 (see graphic left).

Excision was not only a geographical, but a temporal strategy. It was retrospectively applied to boats that had already landed on Australian territory, as in the case of the Minasa Bone which arrived at Melville Island on November 3, 2003. The following day Melville Island was excised from the migration map, giving the government legal cover for towing the Minasa Bone back into Indonesian waters. The fourteen Kurdish asylum seekers aboard were refouled to Turkey.

‘They towed the boat away in the middle of the night. We felt sorry for them, poor things. They were asylum seekers weren’t they?’

‘We watch the news and read the paper. We’re not stupid people, we’re educated. We know what it means to be non-Australians. If that boat comes back, we’ll welcome them and give them food and water. You know why? Because we’re all one group — non-Australians.’

Indigenous Melville Islanders’ response to the excision of their land and their effective deterritorialisation after the arrival of the Minasa Bone


Legislating Excision

An illustrated map shows the relationship between Australia and Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, Ashmore Islands and Cartier Island, which are marked as being in an excised zone. Explanatory text at the top of the image reads 'In 2001, in an attempt to discourage boat arrivals, Australia implemented its 'Pacific Solution', which excised Christmas Island and several other regions from its immigration zone'.

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Free Eaten Fish‘, 2017. Artist: Kate Moon.

Excision also meant that as ‘offshore entry persons’ those intercepted could be subject to removal to a ‘declared country’, for example to Papua New Guinea or Nauru. This initiated the offshoring of detention in the Pacific Solution.

The suite of legislation and proposed amendments relating to the migration zone includes:

 Manipulations of Excision: The Lambeth

A paper coffee cup filled with orange and red flowers is laid on the concrete path in front of the room of a man who died in immigration detention. On the door to the room is a sign with the number 4 written on it and the 'Serco' logo above. Reflected in the window adjacent to the door is a compound fence.

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Flowers for Abdul Aziz, MITA accommodation, 2019. Photo: provided.

In April 2013, the Lambeth, also known as SIEV 662, was intercepted by an Australian customs vessel, the Ocean Protector, and taken to Darwin via the waters of the excised territory of Ashmore Reef in order to render the people on board ‘offshore arrivals’. They were thus intentionally denied the rights they would be entitled to as ‘onshore arrivals’ and subjected, by this dubious manoeuvre, to the s 46A bar, making them eligible to be transferred to offshore imprisonment on Manus Island or Nauru.

Coincidentally, the name Lambeth originates from Lambehitha, meaning ‘landing place for lambs’. In this case, the landing place of the 79, mostly Vietnamese, asylum seekers on board became a contested issue. In 2018, a Federal Circuit Court judgement determined that the practice of forcibly transiting people via Ashmore Reef was illegitimate. The transit of people through these waters for the purposes of forcing their arrival within an excision zone was eventually deemed invalid because the lagoon at Ashmore Reef, which was declared a ‘proclaimed port’ by then Minister for Immigration Philip Ruddock, in fact never had been a port.  Consequently, it was found that those on board did not ‘enter’ Australia at that point.

The tortuous manipulations of temporal and spatial borders by the policies of ‘excision’ have had dire consequences for those affected, from refoulement to places of persecution to years of incarceration offshore. In July 2019, it was reported that a young Afghan man who had arrived in Australia as an unaccompanied minor and was affected by the Lambeth ruling, died while detained in Melbourne.

Excision ad absurdum: The Bremen

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‘And in May 2013, less than a month after the Bremen sailed into Geraldton Harbour, parliament took the extraordinary step of legislating the excision of Australia’s mainland from its own migration map … The excision of the Australian mainland from its own migration zone in 2013 was a culmination of a process of the desire for overweening sovereign control in space and time. Australia performs its absolute self-sovereignty through the ultimate disappearing act, extreme self-insulation through dissolution. In a paroxysm of anxiety over its borders, the state, in effect, has swallowed itself whole: Australia becomes not-Australia.’ 

Suvendrini Perera, ‘In flight’, 2015

On 9 April 2013, a group of 66 people including children, travelling on a small fishing boat called the Bremen, arrived on the shores of Geraldton, 400km north of Western Australia’s capital city. The four-person fishing boat had been donated to Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami. After spending 44 days at sea, the boat, which had been destined for New Zealand, unexpectedly arrived on the Australian mainland. Many of the children, women and men on board were immediately deported, while others were dispersed into mandatory detention. Following this, parliament took the extraordinary step of excising the entire mainland from the migration zone to prevent any further landings on Australian territory.

The boat itself, contrary to standard operating procedure, was not torched or scuttled. Instead the WA Museum acquired it as part of the story of the state’s relationship with the Indian Ocean. Planned for display at a new state museum, the Bremen will be an ‘ambiguous witness’, bearing the traces of arrivals who themselves have been disappeared, hinting at their unrealised aspirations and unknown dreams. (Perera, 2016). Its display bears some resemblance to the controversial exhibition of a boat named Barca Nostra at the Venice Biennale in 2016. 

Contesting Excision: The Lazy Jack and Sail 4 Justice

Two people sit on a yellow fibreglass boat. Another person stands bent over while fastening a banner to the boat railing. The banner reads 'Indigenous Sovereignty'.

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Sail 4 Justice launch, 2019. Photo: Charandev Singh.

‘I didn’t cede my sovereignty, so I don’t know what gives the white Australian Government the right to say who can or can’t come into this country.’  

Lyle Davis, South Coast Yuin man

In 2019, the Sail 4 Justice freedom flotilla was launched with the intention of sailing to Manus Island and delivering 400 Aboriginal passports to Australia’s political prisoners, who have been forcibly held there for the past six years. Following the solidarity expressed by the Tiwi Islanders who declared, ‘We are all non-Australians’ after the excision of Melville Island in 2003, many Indigenous Australians have exercised their sovereignty over the land by extending refuge and hospitality to asylum seekers.

The passage of the Sail 4 Justice flotilla, from Gimuy/Cairns to PNG, defies  the imaginary borders enforced by the Australian state and the authority that the latter seeks to assert through its excision and deterriorialization policies. Instead, it affirms a geography of interconnection and care for the stranger premised on the practice of Indigenous sovereignty (Pugliese ‘Geopolitics of Aboriginal Sovereignty’ 2015 ).

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‘The Ocean is my Passport’, The Refugee Art Project. Artist: Mona.

Sovereign Borders: Detected, Intercepted and Removed

‘Their behaviour was very inhuman. […] They were very badly behaved. Then we requested them – we prayed to them – don’t push us back, we will die if your government doesn’t take us. [But] they didn’t let us talk – [they were] just shouting very cruelly: “If any of you touch the crew or baggage, you will be punished.” They warned us two or three times.’

71 Kupang Interview, 21 August 2015 in By Hook or by Crook, Australia’s abuse of asylum-seekers at sea, Amnesty International October 2015. Index: ASA 12/2576/2015.

The ‘Saving Lives at Sea’ narrative

A group of men on a boat signal for help off the coast of Sumatra. They wave their arms and some hold orange life jackets up in an effort to attract attention. The photo is taken from the perspective of a person sitting in the middle of the boat looking towards the front. The horizon is on an angle, suggesting that the boat unstable, swaying from side to side. There is a black floatation ring in the foreground and a few of the men wear them around their waists in addition to the life jackets.

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The photo shows a number of shipmates signaling for help. Photo: Barat Ali Batoor. The film ‘One Man’s Escape From The Taliban‘ details Batoor’s journey.

The Australian government persists with a narrative of trying to ‘save lives at sea’ to justify its turnback and offshore detention policies.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently defended the policies: ‘What we are doing is saving life at sea. We are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling, and by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe and to keep this evil trade stopped.’

Amnesty International’s report ‘By Hook or by Crook’ documents in detail Australia’s abuse of asylum seekers at sea despite the challenges of verifying statements and obtaining details about what happens to people who interact with Australian officials at sea. There is a dearth of publicly available information about the activities carried out under the authority of Operation Sovereign Borders. Australian officials consistently refuse to disclose information about ‘on-water matters’. Legislative changes to the Border Force Act, brought into effect on 30 June 2015, further deepen the secrecy surrounding border control matters in Australia.

Orange ‘lifeboats’: hi-tech cruelty

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Video appears to show lifeboat being towed by an Australian vessel under Operation Sovereign Borders. This video was obtained by the ABC received from Indonesian sources, 2014.

‘Inside the orange boat it was closed, hot and very dark … No light. Very hot. When the driver opens the door, the water comes inside. We’re sick. Everybody sick; there was no air.’

Omar Ali, an Egyptian asylum seeker ‘turned back’ from Australian waters to Indonesia in 2014

Since resuming its cruel policies of interception at sea in 2013, the Australian government has also begun utilizing a variety of boats as weapons against asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia.

In 2014, the deployment of orange unsinkable lifeboats was publicised.  Their orange colour recalled that of many life jackets, yet the vessels incited controversy about the safety of the people forced onto them and the risks associated with tow-backs and turn-backs. In March 2014, the first hazy video showed an orange ‘lifeboat’ being towed by the Australian Customs patrol boat Triton. It was taken by one of the 34 asylum seekers on board, a group returned to the coast of Java, Indonesia.

In most mainstream media, these ‘disposable lifeboats’ were described as evidence of Australia’s humane treatment of asylum seekers: hi-tech, automated and sanitised solutions to the messy business of interception and refoulement.* They were highly publicised, described as ‘air-conditioned … unsinkable, orange capsules … built to international standards … [which] contained life jackets, food and water and a diesel motor capable of doing 30 knots.’ However, testimonies by those forcibly transported on these disposable, airless ‘lifeboats’ with a couple of small, high windows, tell a very different story, one of horror and fear for life that is in stark contrast to the sanitised and safe process implied in official discourse.


*Not all asylum seekers have been returned in the orange lifeboats: In some instances, asylum seekers have been handed over to the navy of their countries of origin, such as Sri Lanka; at other times, asylum seekers’ own boats are towed back, or are repaired by the Australian navy and then turned back.

RELEVANT KEY TERMS: necrotransport

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Australian Government / ABF Propaganda ‘English- No change to Australia’s boat turn back policy’, 2016.

‘It is the policy and practice of the Australian government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter Australia and safely remove it beyond our waters.’ 

Angus Campbell, former commander of Operation Sovereign Borders

Detention at Sea and Enforced Returns

A poster places in an A-frame is displaced on the pavement in a public space. The poster features the photo of a toddler wearing a blue and purple fairy dress and wings. The text reads 'Where is Febrina? Where are the 153 Tamil Asylum Seekers? Let Them Land, Let Them Stay'.

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Protest, Narrm (Melbourne), 2014. Photo: Tamil Refugee Council.

‘The people … were told to prepare at any time for the boats to be dropped into the ocean’.

Spokesperson for Tamil  asylum seekers  ordered to operate the orange lifeboats

‘I am 34 years old and I’ve never heard of refugees being treated like we have been anywhere in the world. We have been treated like animals’  

Man quoted in statement by the Tamil Refugee Council  

In June 2014, reports emerged of a group of 157 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers en route by boat to Christmas Island via India. Among those on board were 50 children, including three year-old Febrina, whose circumstances have been publicly reported. The boat was intercepted by the Australian navy and the people on board transferred to the ACV Ocean Protector.

Australia sought to return the group to India, reportedly ordering  several men to sail the orange life-boats back to India, though they had no sailing experience. They were provided with instructions in English –a language they did not speak — and a map of the Indian coast. The move placed all the passengers in a dangerous situation, while the men, who were told they had to follow orders although they could not understand the instructions and had no experience of navigation, were ‘terrified at the prospect of being dumped in the ocean on lifeboats without experience in navigating or operating a boat, and having to take the responsibility for the families on those boats’.

While a legal team worked to prevent the group’s refoulement, the asylum seekers were effectively detained at sea on the Ocean Protector. Reports suggested that families were separated; people detained were below deck in windowless rooms and were only allowed three hours a day outside. After more than a month at sea, they were transferred to Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. About a week later they were secretly transferred to Nauru overnight, without the knowledge of their lawyers. The High Court later ruled that their detention at sea for a month was lawful. (See judgement: CPCF v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection)  

This move left women, like Durga*, a survivor of gendered violence in Sri Lanka, vulnerable to sexual assault in the Nauru camp, a site notorious for violence against women and children.

Elastic Borders, Fake Boats and Sovereign Breaches

‘My gut feeling was that it wasn’t ethical or moral to put people on these boats. You wouldn’t do it to Australian citizens.’

Anonymous government official and local fisher in Darwin

In 2015, 10 new Vietnamese-built boats, specially designed as ‘alternative transportation vessels’ replaced the controversial orange ‘lifeboats’. These boats failed to meet regular marine standards, with serious questions raised about their stability, structural integrity and ability to handle tough conditions in the open ocean.

At least two of these unseaworthy boats were given Arabic names, Farah and Harum, which obfuscated their origins and made it likely that they would be taken for Indonesian boats which often have similar names. The secrecy with which the Australian government withheld information about these shoddy vessels — their number, their cost and what flag they would sail under– reinforces the notion that they were intentionally designed and built to give the impression of being boats of Asian origin.

The construction of boats such as the Farah and the Harum raises the possibility of a deliberate form of camouflage mobilised to facilitate Australia’s strategic breaches of Indonesian sovereignty by sailing into Indonesian waters in the process of turn-back operations. They expose the nefarious range of feints and ruses deployed by the Australian government in order to consolidate its ‘stop the boats’ policy. The move would be consistent with ongoing complaints from the Indonesian government about the implications of Australia’s interception policy and its continual breaches of Indonesian sovereignty.


Encroaching Sovereignties, Manipulating Borders

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Australia’s breaches of Indonesian sovereignty ensure the securitisation of the Australian state’s settler sovereignty — at any cost. Instantiated here are neocolonial moves that expand the reach of Australian sovereignty into extraterritorial spaces such as Indonesia. The Australian settler state’s borders here emerge as unidirectionally elastic and pliable: they are opportunistically expanded so that they encompass,  through the very deployment of the feints and ruses embodied by these fake boats, the sovereign borders of other nations.

Two seemingly contradictory movements are at play here: on the one hand, through reductionist moves predicated on the legislative excision of migration zones, the Australian border dramatically contracts; on the other hand, the deployment of these fake boats evidences the expansion of the Australian border and its sovereign reach into, and overriding of, other nations’ sovereignties and jurisdictions. The Australian government’s fake boats work to operate under the radar, for example, of Indonesian sovereignty precisely in order to further extraterritorial operations of interception. As extraterritorial technologies deployed to further Australia’a  turn-back operations, they emerge as one more weapon mobilised to wage war on asylum seekers and refugees.

‘They tried to kill us’: pushbacks in the Aegean

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Safet Zac, ‘Exodus,’ 2017, Santa Maria della Pietà, Venice. Photo: Joseph Pugliese.

‘There were strong waves. We thought they came to save us. They told us to cut the engine. They tied our boat to theirs with a rope, and then they started to turn us in circles…It was so inhumane. They tried to kill us… I told them there were children aboard, but they wouldn’t listen.’

Mohammed Fadil, whose 4 year-old daughter drowned during a turnback operation 

On 15 January 2019, 46 people seeking asylum were intercepted by the Greek coastguard in the Aegean Sea and pushed back towards the Turkish coast.   Their boat began to fill with water during this move, and survivors report that the Greek coastguard abandoned them as they started to sink. The Turkish coastguard dispatched boats and a helicopter to try rescue survivors, but Mohammed Fadil’s daughter had already drowned.

Despite the suggestion by Greek authorities that these are isolated  incidents, organisations such as Amnesty International have documented a pattern of pushback operations that have consistently placed lives at risk. Five years earlier, in January 2014, 11 Afghans – including eight children – drowned when their fishing boat carrying 27 people sank near the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Survivors stated that the boat started to sink as Greek authorities towed the vessel at great speed back towards Turkey. Sabur Azizi told Amnesty International, ‘Somebody showed them the baby asking for help but the coastguards swore at us instead of helping us…When the coastguards cut the rope and tried to move away we started sinking.’ As people tried to move from their sinking vessel to the coastguard boat they were beaten back by the coastguards. Those who managed to climb on board were subsequently held at gunpoint and stripped and beaten after being taken to the island.

There are other documented cases of the coastguard firing bullets at refugees travelling by boat and subjecting them to other forms of ill treatment.

Pushbacks in Australia

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Rescue the Rohingya Perth Protest, Boorloo, 2015. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.

Pushbacks by the Australian navy are shrouded in secrecy as part of ‘on water matters’ decreed under Operation Sovereign Borders. Information is only available from asylum seekers who mange to communicate with contacts in Australia, or when official complaints are lodged by other states. According to  statistics compiled by the parliamentary library, a total of 23 boats carrying over 800 people were subject to pushback between December 2013 and June 2018.

One boat that was pushed back by the Australian navy became stranded near West Kupang, Indonesia: ‘One of the police officers who assisted the 16 male asylum seekers off their boat, Farah, at Tablolong beach in West Kupang told Fairfax Media they could have died if no one had found them.’ These potentially fatal push backs stand in contravention of Australia’s obligation, as a country that has ratified the UN Refugee Convention, to accept and process those who enter the country seeking asylum. Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapoteur, has condemned Australia’s push backs as ‘illegal’ and as ‘putting lives at risk.’


A show of defiance: the Jaya Lestari

A spray painted timber sign erected on an asylum seeker boat reads 'We Are Sri Lankan Civilians. Plz Save Our Life'.

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Sign on the Jaya Lestari, Merak, 2009. Photo published on

‘Please help us and save our lives. We are your children. Please think of us, please, please. ‘

Brindha, 8 year old on board the Jaya Lestari

In October 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intercept a boat, the Jaya Lestari, carrying 254 Tamil refugees travelling from Indonesia to Australia.

After being towed to a port in Merak, West Java, by the Indonesian navy, the group on board the Jaya Lestari, which included 31 children, collectively refused to disembark. One hundred and nine of the passengers were already UNHCR-certified refugees and many had already spent years in Indonesia waiting for resettlement. In virtual siege conditions over several months, the group staged an extended sit-in aboard the Jaya Lestari, a powerful refusal to accept the delays to resettlement that left them in limbo.

Weeks after the boat was intercepted, a 29 year old man named Jacob died on board from complications arising from a stomach infection. Despite this, a large proportion of the group continued to resist for six months until they were removed by force and taken to an Indonesian detention centre, funded by Australia. Another two people – Bahirathan and Thileepkumar – who had been on the Jaya Lestari and had UNHCR refugee cards, drowned in 2010 after attempting to take another boat to reach Australia.

By 2012, people from the Jaya Lestari were still awaiting resettlement. They continued to speak out against the prolonged uncertainty they faced through making public statements and participating in protests. Eventually some of those, including one of the spokespeople, Nimal, and the young girl, Brindha, were resettled in Australia.  It remains unclear how many more of the groups remain to be settled.

‘In case immigration want to deport me or deport us we are happy to write a note to them telling I give permission to inject me with poison so I could die when I arrive in Sri Lanka, that’s how we feel about deportation.’

Sathiyan, a Tamil asylum seeker quoted in ‘I Feel Like a Beggar’: Asylum Seekers Living in the Australian Community Without the Right to Work

‘Enhanced Screening Techniques’: Torture by Another Name

In addition to policies of intercepting and towing back boats, the Australian government has introduced a policy of Enhanced Screening. This is an Orwellian name for a process in fact calculated to curtail, not improve, due process for those claiming asylum. The process of Enhanced Screening involves interviewing people days or sometimes even hours following their interception or arrival. Interviewees are not informed that they have a right to seek legal advice or support. Assessments can be as short as four questions. The UN has expressed concerns about the compliance of ‘Enhanced Screening’ with international law. The process has drawn serious criticism based on Australia’s non-refoulement obligations, which prohibit the removal of anyone to a country where they are in danger of death, torture or other mistreatment, including arbitrary detention.

The very term ‘Enhanced Screening’ evokes the spectre of ‘Enhanced Interrogation’, the legal term used by the US to obfuscate its use of torture practices on the victims detained in its war on terror across its various gulags and ‘black sites.’ Situated in this context, the practices of Enhanced Screening must be seen as enabling acts of symbolic, legal and physical violence against those claiming asylum.

By stripping away crucial aspects of due process, the deployment of techniques of Enhanced Screening leaves asylum seekers exposed to the arbitrary and discretionary decisions made by bureaucrats, decisions based on assessment criteria that are not necessarily founded on procedural transparency and substance. In compelling asylum seekers to undergo, in certain cases, days of Enhanced Screening, these practices emerge as tantamount to the psychological forms torture enabled by the use of what are, in effect, Enhanced Interrogation techniques. Techniques of Enhanced Screening thus work to inflict on already traumatised and vulnerable subjects new levels of trauma, anxiety and fear: it is a case of further traumatising the already traumatised.

Finally, the very term ‘Enhanced Screening’ operates to categorise asylum seekers, before the fact and in violation of due process, as always already criminal until proven otherwise — they are effectively framed as always already ‘illegal,’ ‘terrorists’ or ‘fake’ refugees.  In thus framing asylum seekers as guilty before the fact, techniques of Enhanced Screening emerge as underpinned by a tacit confirmation bias that works officially to legitimate the spurious assumption that the bulk of those seeking asylum are not genuine asylum seekers; as a result, they can thus be deported back to their countries of origin where they may be exposed, as discussed below, to the physical violence of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture. The symbolic violence enabled by the exercise of techniques of Enhanced Screening thereby often culminates in acts of physical violence against the victims of Australia’s systemic regime of refoulement.

‘Enhanced Screening’: Criminalising Asylum Seekers and Facilitating Refoulement

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Performance protest outside Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre, Northam, 2014. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The practice of Enhanced Screening was approved on 27 October 2012 by Chris Bowen, former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. It primarily targeted Sri Lankan boat arrivals after the end of the war in that country. A year after its implementation, Enhanced Screening had resulted in the return of over 1200 Sri Lankan refugees, many of whom have been since imprisoned or persecuted upon their return to Sri Lanka.

In July 2014, documents published by The Guardian showed that 3,529 enhanced screening interviews were held between October 2012 and November 2013. Of those detainees subjected to Enhanced Screening, 99.3% listed  ‘Sri Lankan’ as their nationality. Many of those returned faced arbitrary arrest, persecution, police brutality, and torture.

On 20 March 2015, Australian navy vessels intercepted 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers at sea. Their interception was followed by an Enhanced Screening process by which all passengers were returned to Vietnam in less than a month. In July 2015, another boat, also carrying 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers, was intercepted at sea. This time, the process of Enhanced Screening only lasted for four days before the passengers were sent back to Vietnam by plane. Despite assurances provided by the Vietnamese government, some passengers were charged and imprisoned upon their return. Among them were Loan and Lua who again fled Vietnam in 2017 and were subsequently granted refugee status by the UNHCR in Indonesia.


Dying out of sight: brutal policy, lethal consequences

In this cartoon a small boat carrying people seeking seeking asylum approaches a larger vessel labelled 'Sovereign Borders'. Someone on the small boat says 'But...we paid everything we had. We are desperate!' At the front of the small boat a people smuggler reaches out their hand to receive a bag of money being offered from the larger vessel by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who stands behind him states, 'We are more desperate'.

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Illustration: Cathy Wilcox. A response to allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn around.

‘As long as the underlying predicaments which prompt perilous sea journeys to Australia persist, all deterrence strategies will achieve is to ensure that we will not have to see asylum seekers suffer and die. They will be forced to do so out of our sight in the course of attempting to flee in directions other than Australia.’

Savitri Taylor, ‘Towing the boats back is bad policy’

The policies of interception, enhanced screening, turn-back and other technologies adopted under Operation Sovereign Borders with an eye to short-term political gain give no consideration to what awaits refugees when they are denied asylum in Australia and returned to their countries of persecution or to Indonesia.

According to the Minister for Home Affairs, since Operation Sovereign Borders began in 2013, 33 vessels have been intercepted with 827 people returned to their countries of departure or origin as of September 2018. To celebrate this achievement is to rejoice in the denial of human rights and ignore the fact that most of those who resort to the sea to seek asylum in Australia are refugees who flee their homes out of necessity and who have moved between transit countries in search of protection. While these lives might not have been lost to the sea, without safer avenues to resettlement they will not be spared.

Furthermore, the claim ‘we stopped the boats’ on which the Australian government prides itself cannot be substantiated. The boats have not stopped:  several have made their way to Australian territory, including the Cocos Keeling Islands, Saibai Island, and and even far-north Queensland. While the causes that impel people to flee for their lives remain, people will continue to seek asylum by boat, even in the face of Australia’s brutal and ruthless policies.

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Artwork: Eaten Fish.

Weaponising Exposure

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‘Why are you filming? We will soon be dead’, The Iraqi Youth Art Project. Produced by Information and Cultural Exchange (I.C.E.) as part of the Iraqi Youth Art Project and made possible with support from Fairfield City Council, Fairfield City Museum & Gallery and the Iraqi Cultural Festival – Song of Peace from Australia to Mesopotamia, 2016. Video: Mohammed Alanezi and Ludwig El Haddad.


The Strategic use of the Sea

A painting of an orange life vest juxtaposed against a blue background.

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Ben Quilty, Vest2017 

‘Migrants do not only die at sea, but through a strategic use of the sea … Even when they drown following a shipwreck or starve while drifting in currents, there is nothing “natural” about their deaths … Our project could not limit itself to reading the sea in order to document specific incidents, but demanded that we attempt to understand the conditions that have led the sea to become so deadly. … the Mediterranean has been made to kill through contemporary forms of militarised governmentality of mobility which inflict deaths by first creating dangerous conditions of crossing, and then abstaining from assisting those in peril. This governmentality is shaped by the complex legal structure and mode of governance of the sea that enables state actors to selectively expand or retract their rights and obligations. What emerges from these conditions is a form of violence that is diffused and dispersed among many actors’.

Liquid Traces, Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pellani  in The Borders of Europe


A Sea of Impunity: the scandal of the ‘left-to-die’ boat

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Testimony of Dan Haile Gebre, survivor of the ‘left-to-die’ boat, interview conducted by Lorenzo Pezzani, Forensic Architecture, 2011. 

‘There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children…That constitutes a crime, and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.’

Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who had contact with people on board

In March 2011, 72 people from Sub-Saharan Africa, including women, children and infants, attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. They made their their first distress call within 15-18 hours of beginning their journey, and subsequently came into contact with helicopters, a large military vessel and several fishing boats. Yet none of the actors involved attempted to initiate a rescue effort.

By the time the ‘left-to-die boat drifted back to the Libyan coast, 15 days after its departure, only 11 of those on board were still alive. One of the survivors died soon after reaching land, while another died due to medical neglect shortly after they were detained by authorities.

Reports such as the Netherlands activists’ report, ‘Lives Lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?‘, and Forensic Oceanography’s investigation of the ‘Left-To-Die Boat’, provide detailed accounts of the journey and the multiple points at which action could have been taken to prevent this devastating loss of life.

‘Prevention Through Deterrence’

Colourful decorated coffins mounted on a corrugated steel fence at the border. Each coffin marks a year and the number of deaths during that year.

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Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México, Photo: Tomas Castelazo.

‘Mass death and disappearance are the inevitable outcomes of a border enforcement plan that uses the wilderness as a weapon.’ 

Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement Agencies are fueling a Missing Persons Crisis’ Report

State authorities engineer the deaths and disappearances of people who are seeking asylum or attempting to migrate by literally weaponising the natural environment. Deserts and oceans both have become vast graveyards of the missing.  

In the US, the ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ policy, not unlike the policies maintained by the Australian government, led to thousands of people perishing in the borderlands due to dehydration, heat-related illness, exposure and other preventable environmental causes. Although ‘deterrence’ policies and the militarisation of borders have consistently failed to stop people from crossing borders, they have succeeded in proliferating border deaths and disappearances by pushing people into the most lethal terrains. This is documented in detail in ‘The Disappeared’ report, produced by La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths.    

In the Australian context, so-called ‘deterrence’ policies make examples of people who have made it to Australia by boat by subjecting them to indefinite detention on remote islands or to regimes of insecurity and harm that include temporary visas. These unnatural, state manufactured conditions have proven to be just as lethal as the terrains that people survived in the course of their journeys.  

Civil Modalities of Necrotransport

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Red Handprint on window at Border Force Protest organised by WACA, Narrm, Kulin Nations (Melbourne), 2018. Photo: Charandev Singh. 

As borders become increasingly militarised and states adopt and uphold policies of deterrence, migrants and people seeking asylum are increasingly being forced into boats, lorries and other forms of necrotransport in order to cross borders. Operative here are ‘civil modalities‘ of asylum seeker trauma and death (Pugliese, ‘Civil Modalities’ 2009). Civil modalities of asylum seeker trauma and death bring into focus the role of non-state actors, such as lorry companies, in enabling the necrotransport of asylum seekers through such civil technologies as lorries and containers.

The prosecution of people involving in smuggling or trafficking migrants is centred following migrant deaths in these contexts. The language of tragedy, shock and grief is used in media reports without acknowledgement or analysis of the political conditions that manufacture deaths like these. Framed as isolated incidents orchestrated by non-state actors, rather than a logical outcome of border policies that reduce access to safe migration pathways, state accountability is removed from the equation.

Seen and Unseen: Deaths in boats and lorries

A group of young people stand in front of a church building. The central placard shows a depiction of the statue of liberty and reads 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to Breathe Free'.

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(From left) Chiara Pride, Jolie Nyamarembo, Sean Rivera, and Areline Serna hold up signs at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral, 2017. Photographer: Bonnie Arbittier for the Riverd Report.

‘I am dying, I can’t breathe’

Text message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26 year old who died in the back of a truck

Rubber dinghies, trucks, containers, car boots, cargo holds and plane wheelbays can operate, for asylum seekers and the undocumented, as technologies of incarceration that often lead to death. The death of asylum seekers fatally trapped in these modes of necrotransport can be both seen and unseen: their death is seen when they are finally discovered, as happened when the asphyxiated bodies of 39 Vietnamese people, including two who were only 15 years old, were found in a truck in Essex, England; alternatively, their deaths remain unseen and invisibilised when their bodies are clandestinely dumped by traffickers in order to eliminate the incriminating evidence.

While, in the case of the Essex lorry deaths, reporting was largely sympathetic to the victims and their families, the question can be raised of how they would have been treated had they been found alive. A similar case in San Antonio, Texas in 2017 partially answers this question. Here, 39 people were also found in the back of a truck, 10 of them died, while the others survived, though not without sustaining serious injuries and psychological trauma. After they cooperated with authorities and agreed to testify against the truck driver, James Bradley Jr, it was decided that they were no longer needed as witnesses in the proceedings. Two of the survivors were then deported to Mexico, without the knowledge of their lawyers, while others, including those who have acted as witnesses likewise face the threat of deportation.

Exposure in transit countries: terrains of insecurity
A group of people protest, many of whom are holding signs. A woman sits beside one of the placards, on a fold-out chair, holding a walking stick. The sign beside her depicts a fish in a glass of water with the text 'It is alive, it has security but it is not living this is the story of migrants in Indonesia'.

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Protest in Indonesia, 2018. Photo: supplied. 

We’re not living, we’re just alive

Ali Khan Khashei

‘I escaped genocide in Myanmar but I cannot escape Australia’s immigration policies…If the Australian government believes that locking up refugees like cattle will end the refugee crisis, they are wrong: people movement will never stop. People will go to the end of the Earth in pursuit of freedom.’

JN Jonaid

In November 2014, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia would be ‘taking the sugar off the table’ and ceasing the resettlement of refugees who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014. A few years later, it was also announced that people who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after 15 March 2018 would be ineligible for International Organisation for Migration (IOM) funding provided by Australia.

Partly as a result of these Australian policies, people have been left stranded in Indonesia without the right to work or to access education. As a result, many are exposed to poverty and homelessness. In recent years, some refugees have been told that they might never be resettled in a third country.

There are parallels between Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum within Australia and in transit countries like Indonesia. In both cases people are subjected to perpetual insecurity; a tactic to wear people down and coerce them to self-deport.

Exporting Detention and Deaths in Custody

A group of men gather in front of a tall fence topped with razor wire. They stand with their arms raised and crossed above their heads in a display of protest and resistance.

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Protest inside Balikpapan Detention Centre, Indonesia, 2018. Photo: Refugees of Balikpapan.

Australia effectively exports detention to Indonesia through the provision of funding for Indonesian detention centres. Deaths in and out of custody in Indonesia are a clear example of the ways in which transit countries are weaponised. Some responsibility for these deaths can be attributed to Australian policies. Muhammad Joniad, a 25 year old Rohingya refugee and lawyer from Rakhine State in Myanmar, has gathered stories of at least 17 people who have died by suicide or because they were unable to access medication or healthcare. Their cases are detailed in his report, ‘The Hidden Tragic Deaths of Refugees in Indonesia‘.

Known deaths of refugees and people seeking asylum living in limbo in Indonesia include:

February 2012: Taqi Nekoye (Pontianak immigration detention centre in Kalimantan), beaten to death by guards

2015: Ali Muhammad, 24 years (Surabaya detention centre), suicide by hanging

October 2017: Santhia (Jakarta hospital), kidney failure

January 2018: Unnamed Hazara man, suicide

March 2018: Hayatullah, 22 years old (Medan detention centre), suicide by hanging

October 2018: Abbas Mohammadi, 22 years (Batam detention centre), suicide by hanging

March 2019: Sajad Jacob, self-immolated after living in limbo in Indonesia for nearly two decades

Similarly, from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2016 it was reported that there were over 100 deaths in Malaysian detention centres.

Representations: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (TRAILER)’, 2011. The film can be streamed and downloaded from their website.

The 2011 documentary Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea follows the journeys of several refugees who were living in limbo in Indonesia. It explores the question of why people are compelled to seek asylum by boat, underlining the exposure that people face in transit countries and the delicate line that they are forced to tread between life and death.

As people trace their histories and speak of previous attempts to reach Australia, of lost loved ones and uncertainty for their futures, it becomes clear that before they board the boat to Australia, they face an inhospitable terrain: one where the threat of incarceration is omnipresent, where their rights are not respected and their circumstances are largely beyond their control. The film challenges the government’s simplistic argument about stopping drownings by making clear that ‘saving lives’ means enabling people to live in safety and dignity with a real prospect of resettlement, rather than merely stopping them from getting on boats.

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Tracey Moffatt, Vigil, 2017, video still. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

‘The Australian Solution’: A model for necropolitics at the border

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Exterior view of Tracy Moffat’s, ‘Vigil,’ 2017, Australian Pavilion, Venice. Photo by Joseph Pugliese

Australian politicians proudly claim that Australia has become a model for state violence at the border, while the so called ‘Australian Solution’ has been cited by other Western nation-states and far right groups in Europe, who have sought to replicate elements of policy or rhetoric.

Far right groups in Europe have borrowed from Australian state propaganda. Douglas CarswellUkip member of parliament in 2015, suggested, There are lessons to learn from Australia. It’s come up with something that works.

In 2017, a leaked transcript of a phone call between then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump  revealed that as the Australian Prime Minister was explaining Australia’s border policies, Trump responded, ‘That is a good idea. We should do that too.’  He even conceded admiringly:  You are worse than I am.’ More recently President Trump tweeted, ‘These flyers depict Australia’s policy on Illegal Immigration. Much can be learned!’

This section explores Australia’s necropolitics at the border, and its convergences and continuities with those of other states.

Deadly Manipulations: Journey

The telemovie ‘Journey’ was produced by the Australian Federal Government and the Customs and Border Security Agency at a cost of over $6 million. It was designed to target people in countries from which people often seek asylum in order to deter them from coming to Australia by boat. It first aired in Afghanistan in March 2016 and was intended to also be broadcast in Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. While some details in the film might be considered accurate representations of the risk and hardships faced by people traveling by boat, the film implicitly exploits and manipulates legitimate fears and concerns, particularly of drowning and exploitation by people smugglers, to achieve a political outcome. Filmmakers and government representatives framed the film with the rhetoric of ‘saving lives at sea’ by deterring people from boarding boats, without offering any viable alternatives for people forced to migrate.


Sombre Warning or Wishful Drowning?

The Journey is one of a sequence of advertising campaigns, all designed to frighten intending asylum seekers from seeking refuge in Australia. These campaigns range from the terrifying to the grotesque, such as the fake horoscopes purporting to warn Sri Lankans of a range of dire consequences if they try to seek refuge in Australia.

In June 2000, then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, released a triple video set (The Trip, The Reception and Experiences and Expectations of Travellers) which portrayed the difficulties of the journey to Australia and showed Australia as a land beset by deadly fauna and a harsh environment. In his 2011 article, ‘Dying to come to Australia,’ Jon Stratton describes these videos as an anti-tourism campaign directed at prospective asylum seekers (Stratton, 2011), juxtaposing it with the notorious ‘Where the hell are you?’ tourist campaign conceptualised by then ad man, and current Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

Another short film, Left Behind,  features a chilling soundtrack that simulates the last gasps for breath and final heartbeats of an asylum seeker meeting a lonely death by drowning at the bottom of the sea. The lushly evocative short film, with its visuals of engulfing waves, stands as an instance of the wishful sinking or wishful drowning that characterizes official attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Necropolitics in practice: ‘No obligation or expectation’

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Mural of The Titanic on Block 144 at Woomera Detention Centre, 2005. Photo: Dean Sewell.

In its closing submissions in the inquest into the dead of the Janga, the Commonwealth contended that ‘there is ‘no domestic or international expectation or obligation that BPC [Border Protection Command] or other Australian assets will be postured for the purpose of saving SIEVs [Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels] that may place themselves in dangerous situations’.

A similar incident occurred on 16 July 2013, when a distress call was made from the Oneonta (SIEV 794) after the boat started taking on water northeast of Christmas Island. The internal Customs report noted that the commanding officer of the HMAS Albany considered providing life jackets to the asylum-seekers, but made a professional judgment not to do so because it was unable to board the boat and safely transfer the life jackets to the passengers, or provide instructions on how to use them. Authorities rescued 146 people from the water, including an infant. But the four bodies recovered were not wearing life jackets. The internal review noted it was not the appropriate authority to draw any conclusions about whether the earlier provision of life jackets would have prevented loss of life.

The two decisions represent an official policy that places no obligation on Border Protection Command for the safety of asylum seekers’ lives at sea. Its ‘obligations and expectations’, rather, are concerned with preventing their entry into Australia.

In subsequent years the destructive prioritising of deterrence above all has spread to other countries.


Canada’s response to the MV Sun Sea

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Graphic: Ryan and Shiela for No One Is Illegal (NOII) Vancouver.

Despite Canada’s reputation for being relatively generous in their response to refugees, when it comes to those who arrived undocumented or without authorisation, political and legislative responses run parallel to those in Australia. Just months after the formal end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, 76 Tamil refugees were intercepted off the coast of Vancouver in October 2009 on board the Ocean Lady. Less than a year later in August 2010, the MV Sun Sea followed, carrying 492 Tamil refugees. Then conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the mainstream media, described the arrival of the boats as a ‘security concern’ and characterised the asylum seekers as ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’.

The arrival of these boats was the catalyst for the introduction of the Refugee Protection Act Bill C-31 (2012) (which followed the unsuccessful introduction of the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act Bill C-49 in 2010 and subsequent Bill C-4) which included the Designated Foreign National Regime (DFN). This legislation was modelled on Australian immigration law and mandated the detention of asylum seekers who arrived in Canada in an ‘irregular’ way; clearly targeting people seeking asylum by boat. People with DFN status are also barred from applying for permanent residency for 5 years from the date of designation, which effectively prohibits family reunion.

As some commentators have pointed out, even the name Bill C-31 has a racist legacy in Canada’s history. The Bill C-31 of 1985 was an amendment to the Indian Act which although broadened the criteria for Indigenous status, continued to discriminate against Indigenous women.

EU: The new normal?

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Artwork: Mahmoud Salameh.

In April 2009, 140 people seeking asylum, along with 13 crew members were rescued from two boats by the Turkish ship MV Pinar. Subsequently, the ship was prevented from reaching either a Maltese or Italian port because both countries refused to accept responsibility for the people who had been rescued. A four-day standoff ensued, leaving those on board stranded at sea with insufficient food and water supplies. Here, political imperatives were prioritised over the lives of people considered unworthy of being rescued. Eventually, the Italian government agreed to let them land in Sicily.  By this time one of the pregnant women on board had already died 

The events of the MV Pinar standoff in the Mediterranean Sea recall Australia’s response to the MV Tampa in 2001, which resulted in a five-day standoff in the Indian Ocean. In this case, the Norwegian freight vessel rescued 433 asylum seekers under the direction of the Australian Maritime Authority. The Australian government refused to allow the ship to enter Australian waters and insisted that the asylum seekers be returned to Merak in Indonesia. Due to his concerns for the welfare of those on board, however, Captain Arne Rinnan defied Australian orders and sailed the Tampa into Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. This prompted the government’s introduction of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ to prevent any of the Tampa refugees ‘ever setting foot on Australian soil.   

Violence at sea

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Coda, a cast of footprints taken at a rural border crossing between the US and Canada. Artist: Jessica Segall.

There have since been similar, more recent examples in the Mediterranean like that of the Open Arms ship and Ocean Viking which in August 2019 rescued 134 and 356 people respectively. In both instances, people were left stranded at sea because the surrounding states refused to allow them to dock. After 20 days, a series of medical evacuations from the boat, and 15 people jumping into the sea in an attempt to swim to the island, the Open Arms was given permission to dock at Lampedusa. In the case of the Ocean Viking they were allowed to dock in Malta after 13 days at sea. In both instances, eventually Germany, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania offered to accept some of the people on board. 

The extreme violence towards refugees stranded at sea was exemplified in March 2020, when videos surfaced of Greek coast guards firing shots towards a group of migrants in a dinghy and physically pushing them back with a rod, in an attempt to force them to return to Turkey. Around the same time, another video emerged of a group of local Lesbos residents preventing a boat of asylum seekers from docking and yelling at them to ‘go away’.

The Criminalisation of Solidarity and Humanitarian Aid

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As borders become increasingly militarised and ‘deterrence policies’ push people into more inhospitable terrains, humanitarian aid is also increasingly criminalised. While states continue to abrogate their responsibility to protect human lives, individuals attempt to resist lethal indifference and seek ways to provide aid.

In search and rescue missions in the EU, ordinary citizens have stepped in to provide assistance to people in their communities. Groups like No More Deaths in the US provide potentially life-saving supplies to people undertaking dangerous desert crossings. In several instances, however, governments have moved to punish people for such acts, criminalising what in other contexts would be understood as humanitarian aid.  At least 250 volunteers and aid workers across 14 European countries have been arrested, charged or investigated for supporting undocumented migrants in the past five years

In a two-year long case in the US, Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths, was charged with three counts of felony for offering food, water, and lodging to two migrants who had crossed the US-Mexico border without authorization. Along with other volunteers he also faced separate misdemeanor charges for leaving water jugs and food for migrants on a national wildlife refuge in the remote desert. In November 2019 a jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty‘. The actions of humanitarian workers like Warren and his colleagues represents a refusal to ‘let die’.

‘We need to understand the policies that put him in the sea’

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The Vast Ocean, ‘Vessels to a Story‘ exhibition, 2016. Artist: Van Thanh Rudd.

‘The Day Australians Became Refugees’

‘Let’s remember that we are the people who put their children in boats because the water was safer than the land’

Ahmad Rezaei, Hazara Spokesperson at community fundraiser for Victoria’s bushfire refugees

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing


you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

Warsan Shire, ‘Home’




‘The people who put their children in boats’: Exposing the Faultlines

A crowd gathers and looks over a balustrade. A large banner is hung over the balustrade which reads 'Climate Change=Climate Refugees. Freo Refugee Rights Action Network'. Other placards are also held around it, including one that reads 'No money on a dead planet' and 'Sco Mo likes it hot' with a caricature of the Prime Minister in a bikini.

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School Climate Strike, Boorloo (Perth), 2019. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.

During Australia’s catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020, thousands of residents from the Victorian town of Mallacoota and surrounds found themselves trapped on a beach by the encroaching flames. About a thousand of these had to be evacuated by the navy in scenes strangely reminiscent of the transport of asylum seekers on naval boats over the last two decades.

The associations of this rescue by sea strikingly invert the Australian insular imaginary in which the sea functions as a place of threat and invasion against the stability and security of the land. On the day of the navy rescue, a number of tweets emerged with photos of the evacuees on the navy ships HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore. For some, the images brought back the painful memories of the Tampa and the asylum seekers seen languishing on its deck as the Australian government refused permission to the captain to land the asylum seekers on Australian soil.

‘Australia isn’t meant to look like this’

This painting depicts current and former Australian politicians in a small boat in the water, all wearing orange lift-jackets and holding their children in their arms. At the front, Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds his two daughters. At the back left Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton carries a limp child over his shoulder and to his right, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull carries a small, scared child in his arms. The viewer looks down on the group who look exhausted and scared.

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‘Still painting and still putting politicians instead of refugees, to show they could be like us – Dutton, Morrison, Turnbull’, Oil on canvas, 2019. Artwork: Abbas Alaboudi.

Some viewers of the bushfire coverage couldn’t reconcile the images of evacuation by boat with the ordinary Australians caught in these traumatic circumstances. One declared: ‘My heart is in pieces. Australia isn’t meant to look like this.’ Another tweet, showing a boat load of white Australians, exclaimed: ‘We never thought we’d see the day Australians became refugees.’ Australia, in this settler imaginary, was scripted as well beyond the locus inscribed by disaster, suffering and forced flight experienced by millions of people around the world.

The bush fire catastrophe violently breached Australia’s insular imaginary and shattered the settler image of the nation as one quarantined from the horrors relegated to some abject elsewhere which could not, by definition, be Australia. This settler imaginary is firmly grounded in whitewashing the long history of war, trauma and displacement experienced over two centuries by Australia’s Indigenous people who have also described themselves as refugees in their own country.

Materialising the Faultlines

Screenshot of an article featured on 'The Shovel' webpage. The headline reads 'Dutton Calls For Turnback Of Boat Spotted Off Coast Of Mallacoota' and shows a photo of people gathered on a jetty with naval ships approaching and an ominous red-grey sky.

Some commentators on Twitter could not but juxtapose the images of Australia’s new ‘boat people’ with stock images of the very ‘boat people’ who have been reviled across two decades of toxic and racist debates on how best to prevent asylum seekers from entering the Australian nation.

The images of the Australian navy sent to rescue the bushfire ‘refugees’ was underpinned by an unsettling, if effaced, history of this military organisation and the commandeering of its vessels by the Australian government to stage the push back of refugee boats from Australian waters.

An article on the satire site The Shovel carried the headline, ‘Dutton Calls For Turnback Of Boat Spotted Off Coast Of Mallacoota‘:

Mr Dutton said he was unmoved by the stories of desperation. “These people are desperate, they’re trying to save themselves and their families, and they’ve totally run out of other options. So obviously we cannot possibly accept them here,” Mr Dutton said.

Comparisons and  juxtapositions such as these, we contend, are not about belittling the plight of Australia’s bushfire evacuees, but about materialising the deep fault lines that inscribe the nation’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. These are fault lines marked by the forces of settler colonialism, race and the ongoing settler usurpation of Indigenous sovereignty.


The Climate Change Refugee: In the same canoe

A large crowd fills a city square. A bright orange and pink painted boat sits in the centre with 'Strike' written on the sail and 'Seas R Rising' written on the side of the boat. Surrounding protesters hold various banners and placards.

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School Strike for Climate, Boorloo (Perth), 2019. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.

Some media sources named the bushfire evacuees Australia’s first ‘climate change refugees,’ inserting them within the emergent global domain of people forced to flee their homes in the face of catastrophic climate change events.

The fact that some members of the Australian government joked about rising sea levels due to climate change at a Pacific Islands Forum  in 2015 underscores the racialised asymmetries of power that inscribe the category of ‘refugees’ and ‘climate change.’ Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, condemned the jocular attitude toward climate change espoused by the Australian ministers and spoke to what was at stake of his island nation: ‘climate change was a “matter of survival” for several low-lying Pacific island nations.’

Farewelling a group of engineers assisting with Australia’s bushfire recovery,  Fijian Prime Minister Frank Banimarama pointed out what should have been evident far earlier to Australia’s leading politicians: ‘I have long said that we are all in the same canoe when it comes to combatting climate change.’


‘At the moment … dispossessed, homeless and displaced’

Two silhouetted boats filled with people drift in the ocean. One bears a flag with the word 'Refugees' and the other bears an Aboriginal flag. The passengers on each boat look toward each other and the question 'Which way?' hovers above them.

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Which Way? 2015. Artwork: Mahmoud Salameh.

Refugees and asylum seekers themselves were instantly attuned to the plight of the bushfire evacuees. At a fundraiser held by the Hazara community Ahmad Rezaei noted that his community had responded with immediate empathy to the plight of those displaced from Mallacoota :  ‘Regardless of our visa status, this money has been raised by the Australian Hazara citizens, refugees and asylum seekers.’ He invoked Warsan Shire’s impassioned poem, Home, inspired by conversations with refugees at a detention centre, that has since become something of an anthem and a manifesto for refugees everywhere: ‘Let’s remember that we are the people who put their children in boats because the water was safer than the land.’

Acknowledging the gift on behalf of the Victorian government, Minister Adem Somyurek emphasized that the community had ‘put aside your own personal pain and tragedy … to ease the pain of fellow Victorians who are at the moment being dispossessed, homeless and displaced.’

Yet any implicit reversal of geographic and racial expectations about those ‘being dispossessed, homeless and displaced’ were, as the Minister marked, no more than temporary.

They also have their limits. Indigenous people displaced by the bushfires often experienced very different treatment from their white counterparts, and the ‘culture-neutral’ (that is, white) media reportage of the crisis was oblivious to the specific forms of suffering and trauma experienced by Indigenous people impacted by the fires.


A crisis of colonial logic

A small child sits on a woman's shoulders. The child holds a cardboard placard in front of their face which reads 'Protect and Respect Sacred Land!'. The sign also features a drawing of planet earth and the Aboriginal flag with a yellow heart at its centre.

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Climate Justice Emergency Rally, Boorloo (Perth), 2020. Photo: Simon Stevens.

In an article for the January 26 holiday that commemorates the anniversary of white arrival in 1788, Amy McQuire marked that the rupture of the indispensable relation between people and country lies at the heart of the current climate crisis in Australia:

January 26 does not just symbolise the pain and trauma of our people. It is the beginning of the pain and trauma of this Country over the past 200 years, that has culminated in these disastrous, distressing bushfires. In many parts of this continent, the Country has not heard the languages that have been spoken for tens of thousands of years upon it. It has not been cared for in the way Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years had cared for it. Instead, it has been ripped up and carved up and the waterways and rivers, particularly in NSW, are drying up. In many areas, for example in Borroolloola in the NT, sacred waterways have been polluted by big mining, the fish now contaminated with lead.

McQuire notes the colonial logic that culminated in the disaster of the bushfires, overturning settler assumptions of the racialised distinction that held [white] Australians could never be refugees. Her words return us to Tracey Moffatt’s  insights about the overturning of colonial divides and the undoing of geographies in her video on white panic occasioned by the wreckage of The Janga off the coast of Christmas Island:

The smashing of that rotten wooden boat is symbolic of how borders around the world are disintegrating. The old world is out, the new world is coming in and borders cannot stay closed.



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Published by Amnesty International, 2015. Photo: Ingetje Tadros.

Every boat is the first boat

We  thank all the named and unnamed refugee writers and artists cited in this case study.  In some instances  they preferred to remain anonymous for their own safety, or used pseudonyms. For the same reason, images from detention were often circulated without attribution via activist groups. We have reproduced these in the interest of relaying, amplifying and documenting campaigns against detention, and included the names of the organisations which originally circulated them. Deathscapes researchers have made every effort to seek the permission of refugee artists whose work is reproduced on the site. As their circumstances change, artists may wish to have their own names associated with their images, or to remove them. In these instances, please contact us at or 

This case study was collectively authored by the Australian hub of the Deathscapes project: Michelle Bui, Suvendrini Perera, Joseph Pugliese, Ayman Qwaider and Charandev Singh.

To cite this research: Michelle Bui, Suvendrini Perera, Joseph Pugliese, Ayman Qwaider and Charandev Singh. ‘Every boat is the first boat’. Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States, 2020,

Corresponding author:


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