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SIEV X Affair

Date: 2008
Overall: 548 x 914 x 350 mm, 6200 g
Medium: Wood, steel, paint
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Copyright: © Glenn Morgan
Object Name: Sculpture
Object No: 00047698

User Terms

    Glenn Morgan's sculpture 'SIEV X Affair' depicts the sinking of the overloaded fishing boat SIEV X en route from Sumatra, Indonesia, to the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island on 19 October 2001. 'SIEV' stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, while the 'X' means unknown. A row of government figures observes the unfolding tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of 353 asylum seekers - mainly women and children.
    SignificanceThe sinking of SIEV X was one of the worst maritime tragedies in our region since World War II. In the absence of confirmed visual documentation of SIEV X or its sinking, this sculpture is an attempt by Victorian artist Glenn Morgan to imagine the tragedy, to render it tangible and to validate its place in the recent maritime history of Australia.

    While the work’s whimsical, child-like appearance is at odds with the seriousness of the subject, the presence of onlookers in suits and office attire is an explicit commentary on the role of government and bureaucracy in refugee policy. It is a theatrical, tactile, narrative artwork that captures Morgan’s feelings of disgrace at the SIEV X affair.
    HistorySIEV X is the name given to a decrepit, overcrowded fishing boat that embarked from the port of Bandar Lampung in Sumatra, Indonesia, on 18 October 2001, carrying over 400 asylum seekers who had fled Iraq and Afghanistan. After a night sailing in horrendous weather the boat foundered and sank en route to the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island, drowning 353 people – 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.

    More than 100 people had survived the initial sinking and floated helplessly for 20 hours in the water. During the night, according to those in the water, two large vessels arrived and shone searchlights, but failed to rescue the survivors. The identity of these vessels has never been established. The following day, only 44 asylum seekers remained alive. They were eventually picked up by passing fishermen. A 45th survivor was rescued some 12 hours later.

    SIEV X stood for ‘Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown’ in the language of Australian naval and immigration authorities who were intent on tracking and deterring the many vessels then attempting to ferry people without visas to Australia, where they hoped to make a claim for asylum. As the vessels came under surveillance they were given an official number. SIEV X, when it sank in Indonesian waters, had not yet been assigned one. Most of these boats were, like SIEV X, small, ramshackle Indonesian fishing or trading craft – cheap and expendable to the people smugglers who charged the asylum seekers for their passage.

    The topic of people making such voyages to claim asylum in Australia has always been controversial, stirring the gamut of responses in the Australian community – from compassion and support to resentment and xenophobia. Australia was an early signatory of United Nations conventions and protocols that recognise the rights of people to seek asylum in another country. Nonetheless, since the era of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, governments in Australia have taken determined steps to deter refugees from arriving in such an uncontrolled manner.

    Among these were laws enforcing mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals, introduced in 1992 under the Labor government of 1983–1996. In 1999 the Coalition government (1996–2007) introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for unauthorised arrivals who had been assessed as genuine refugees. This new type of visa removed the refugees’ rights to have their family join them, and to re-enter the country if they needed to leave.

    Many of SIEV X’s ill-fated passengers were women and children desperately attempting to join husbands and fathers in mandatory detention or on TPVs in Australia.

    The SIEV X tragedy came two months after the incident in which the Norwegian cargo ship MV TAMPA rescued 433 Afghan refugees from a sinking fishing boat in international waters and was prevented by the government from landing them in Australian territory. It was two weeks after another refugee boat, SIEV 4, had sunk after being intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy, which pulled its passengers from the water. This was the incident that generated claims – later shown to be erroneous – that asylum seekers had deliberately thrown children overboard to secure refuge in Australia. Shortly afterwards the government introduced its Pacific Solution (2001–2008). This aimed to prevent refugees from reaching Australian territory where they could legally claim asylum, and detained them in cooperating foreign countries such as the Pacific island of Nauru while their refugee status was being assessed.

    These events – all following closely on the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States – set the tone for the November 2001 Federal election, when issues of asylum seekers, boat people and border protection were fervently contested. The question of how to deal with asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised voyages remains one of the most polarising debates in contemporary Australian society.
    Additional Titles

    Web title: 'SIEV X Affair' by Glenn Morgan

    Primary title: SIEV X Affair

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