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It's time to honour fellow boat people

Date

Arnold Zable

The SIEV X memorial in Canberra.

The SIEV X memorial in Canberra. Photo: Andrew Meares

On October 19, 2001, an unnamed fishing boat, now known as SIEV X, sank en route to Christmas Island. The unseaworthy vessel, measuring 19.5 metres by four metres, went down in international waters. A total of 353 men, women and children lost their lives. Forty-five survived. Seven eventually settled in Australia. It was the largest maritime disaster off Australian waters since World War II.

As the day approaches each year, I visit SIEV X survivor Faris Shohani in his one-bedroom flat in Carlton. Faris lost his wife, Leyla, and daughter, seven-year-old Zahra. They disappeared from his grasp into the ocean. The tragedy will haunt him for the rest of his days. He has come to dread the date, his distress heightened by a sense of isolation. It was different on October 19, 2006, when survivors attended a service in Canberra, held on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin, to inaugurate a SIEV X memorial. Designed by 300 schools and community groups across the country, the memorial includes 353 poles, each naming one victim. ''It was a sad day, but it was a good day,'' Faris says. ''Many people came. There was light in the dark.''

October 19 should be a national day of commemoration for asylum seekers who have drowned en route to Australia and a day that our nation and its leaders pay tribute to countless Australians who have made the journey here in search of a better life.

Except for indigenous peoples, we are a land of boat people. Many times I have reiterated that in 1847 an American journalist travelling in Ireland noted that some people's lips were green from eating grass, triggered by the mass starvation that became known as the Great Famine. Out of a population of 8 million, an estimated 1 million died, while 1½ million emigrated.

In all, more than 3 million people left Ireland between 1845 and 1870, and 15 million left the British Isles in the second half of the 19th century. It was the largest exodus in modern times, partly driven by ruthless land clearances and an agrarian revolution that dispossessed millions of their farmlands. Many immigrant ships sank on these perilous voyages. Then, as now, tragedies did not deter people from risking the trip. Faris says he would do it all again, despite the tragedy.

An Iraqi Kurd, his family was summarily deported by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1980. Faris, 12 at the time, lived in a succession of Iranian refugee camps. He remained stateless for 28 years.

On October 3 this year, a boat carrying more than 500 asylum seekers sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The death toll stands at 359 and still counting. Like the asylum seekers on SIEV X, the passengers clung to every inch of space on the overcrowded boat.

In stark contrast to our response to boat tragedies, the Italian government declared a day of national mourning. There was an outpouring of grief. Local fishermen cast wreaths into the water. Flags were flown at half-mast. The Italian Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission proposed a state funeral and flew to Lampedusa to honour the victims. Several towns have held commemorative events. After the initial screening, the survivors will be released into the community, rather than isolated and imprisoned on remote tropical islands.

Meanwhile, the newly elected Abbott government has launched the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders under a veil of secrecy, and reintroduced temporary protection visas.

We urgently need a change in the national conversation about boat people. A day of remembrance on October 19 each year would help heal the moral malaise and divisive politics that have infected the nation since the Tampa affair in August 2001, when the Howard government broke a tradition of bipartisanship on asylum-seeker policy fostered during the Fraser years in response to the challenge of Vietnamese boat people. No matter how cruel you can be, I can be crueller became the name of the game, supported by polling that confirmed the political advantage.

The SIEV X's sinking is our Australian story writ large.

On this day, we should remember the desperation that drove our forebears to make the journey. We should acknowledge this to be the inclusive story of who we are. Give or take a few generations, we too were once aliens who approached this continent by boat.

Faris became an Australian citizen in 2008. It was celebrated at a party with those who had come to admire this modest, warm-hearted man. We saluted his courageous search for a sense of belonging that many Australians take for granted.

''The past is finished for me,'' he says. ''Australia is my home now. When I meet new people from Iraq, I tell them Australian people are kind.''

Arnold Zable is a novelist and a vice-chancellor's fellow at Melbourne University. His most recent book, Violin Lessons, includes the story of SIEV X survivor Amal Basry.

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