Sunday, 26 October 2014  
How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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Degrees of Hell

14 July 2003
by Marg Hutton & Tony Kevin

In view of the recent press coverage concerning Sondos Ismail's family we decided to research what is already on the public record about the visa situation of all the SIEVX survivor families that we understand to be living in Australia. We have not sought to intrude in people's personal affairs.

Seven survivors from five families are now understood to be living in Australia. Their circumstances vary and it could be argued that some are better off in a visa sense than others.

However, talking about 'better off' in these circumstances is a nonsense - because all of the SIEVX survivor families hold different classes of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which, precisely because these visas offer only 'Temporary Protection', leave the families in varying degrees of hell.

It appears that the seven survivors living here are all on subclass XB451 Secondary Movement Relocation (Temporary) visas.

According to DIMIA:

'The subclass XB451 visa is an offshore temporary visa for persons who:

  • are outside their home country,
  • have left their country of first asylum;
  • are currently residing in a country other than their home country or country of first asylum ;
  • have not entered Australia;
  • are not an offshore entry person; and
  • are subject to persecution or substantial discrimination in their home country, or a female registered as being of concern to UNHCR.

The subclass XB451 visa is a five year visa which enables a person to obtain a permanent protection visa after four and a half years if there is a continuing need for protection' [emphasis added].

Although not listed as a criterion a spokesman for DIMIA was quoted in a newspaper last year as stating that: 'survivors of the sinking would [only] be accepted into Australia if they had proven family links'. Presumably this means family links to people whose residency in Australia is secure. But as we understand it, all of the survivors living in Australia except the orphaned Zaynab Alrimahi have been reunited with family in Australia who themselves are only on three year temporary protection visas. (Zaynab's uncle and aunt arrived in 1995 and have since been granted Australian citizenship).

According to Philip Ruddock, the rules governing TPVs were changed in September 2001 'to give the least advantageous outcome to [people] who seek to enter Australia without authority... If [someone] come[s] to Australia or one of our territories or are processed in one of the offshore processing centres, Nauru or Manus Island, they can only get a three year temporary protection visa and that will be for life. In other words, at any time, when they're found no longer to need protection they can be returned home.'

This means that most of the SIEVX survivors now in Australia are in slightly better visa circumstances than those of their immediate family with whom they were reunited. But they are still under the threat of eventual forced return if the Minister decides at the time their XB451 visa expires that they no longer have 'a continuing need for protection' in Australia. And, given the interdependence of the survivors and their families in Australia, a threat to one is a threat to all in the family.

For example if the government decides not to renew the TPV of a spouse who was in Australia before SIEVX and thus on an expiring three year TPV, or of a child born in Australia to a SIEVX survivor and spouse who are both TPV holders, this presents agonising serial choices for survivors on an XB451 visa - to stay on longer in Australia alone, losing access to their spouse and/or child, or to abandon their quest for asylum in Australia and return to Iraq as a family group with the first one who is ordered to leave.

It is hard to avoid a conclusion that SIEVX survivor families are being deliberately left in such cruel limbos of uncertainty; and that our government may be quite happy to see them all eventually forced back to Iraq, so that their stories may be more easily forgotten in Australia.

Some Examples on Public Record

The changes to TPV legislation in September 2001 certainly affect the families of survivors Faris Khadem and the sisters Najah and Zena Zubaydi.

More than half a dozen members of Faris Khadem's family, including his young son Ali had arrived by boat to Ashmore Reef in August 2001. Ali is on a three year protection visa that will expire at least a year before Faris's XB451 visa. Because of the changes to the Temporary Visa legislation outlined above, Ali cannot become a permanent resident. At best, the child Ali (now aged 11 - his mother Leyla and sister Zahra drowned on SIEVX and he and his father Faris are now alone together) is doomed to a cycle of three year TPV renewals, at worst he can be made to return to Iraq alone should it be deemed that he no longer needs protection.

Najah and Zena Zubaydi's parents, Najah's husband and two young daughters arrived in March 2001 and were granted 3 year TPVs in August that year when they were released from Port Hedland detention centre. It appears very unlikely that the family would have applied for permanent residency before September 2001. So like Ali Khadem mentioned above, they could be sent back to Iraq when their visas expire in August next year. Najah and Zena would be left here alone to await their eventual fate under their XB451 visas.

Both Faris Khadem and Najah Zubaydi lost a child in the SIEVX disaster - Najah's 18 month old son Karrar, and Faris' seven year old daughter Zahra, both drowned when SIEVX foundered. To have already lost a child and then to have the threat of separation from your remaining living family members hanging over your head must be very hard to endure.

Amal Hassan Basry and her son Rami survived the sinking of SIEVX. Amal's husband Abbas Akram is on a three year TPV which is due to expire this year. We are unsure of his situation. If he did not apply for permanent residency before September 2001 when the visa legislation was changed then he could be sent back to Iraq when his current visa expires.

The best-known of these tragedies is that of Sondos Ismail and her husband Ahmed Alzalimi . They lost their three daughters Zahra, Fatima and Eman on SIEVX as Ahmed waited in Australia. (They had already lost a baby soon after birth in Iran). According to a newspaper article by Kelly Burke written last year, Ahmed is eligible for permanent residency because he applied before the legislation changed in September 2001. We hope that report is correct - but Ahmed may still be vulnerable to being ordered back under the 'continuing need for protection' test.

Sondos and Ahmed's fifth and only living child, the baby Allaa, although born in Sydney at the beginning of this year is not an Australian citizen. 'Under law, children born in Australia assume the same immigration status as their parents.'

The Australia that Allaa was born into is profoundly different from the one that her father sought asylum in four years ago:

In Oct 1999 the Australian Government introduced a TPV system advocated by Pauline Hanson, with the agreement of the Australian Labor Party. In September 2000 an Australian Federal Police - Indonesian National Police protocol begin joint cooperation to disrupt people smuggling syndicates in Indonesia. In September 2001 Operation Relex starts intercepting asylum seeker boats to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef and the 'Pacific solution' begins. TPV legislation is strengthened with the agreement of the Australian Labor Party so that holders can never achieve permanent residency. In October 2001 Australia begins to tow asylum seeker vessels back to Indonesia and on 19 October SIEVX sinks.

Now in July 2003 seven SIEVX survivors and their families in Australia - genuine refugees, real human beings, our neighbours, people whose lives have been grievously damaged - are living in a hell generated by the tragic impact of these toxic initiatives.

Immigration Minister Ruddock has indicated that he is willing to consider aligning the time frames of TPVs for family members, but is firmly committed to the TPV policy.

By comparison, most of the other SIEVX survivors who were accepted by Scandinavian countries were offered permanent residency there. We know of no SIEVX survivor on a TPV-type visa anywhere else in the world. As far as we know, that exquisite degree of cruelty is uniquely Australian.

We also wonder now, why did Australian authorities offer to accept any SIEVX survivors here? Surely the Scandinavian countries and Canada would have been ready to give them all safe permanent homes? Was it simply a case of 'burden-sharing' for international presentational reasons? Or, did our authorities perhaps want to have a group of vulnerable (in visa terms) potential witnesses in Australia, in case it was ever convenient to mount prosecutions over SIEVX, eg in the possible upcoming prosecution of the SIEVX voyage book-keeper Khaled Daoed, if Sweden should agree to his extradition? Could that perhaps be a potential deal in the making - help us stitch up a file-closing case for Daoed to take the fall as the SIEVX ringleader, and then we might look favourably on finding a way for your families to stay in Australia?

As noted above, Labor has not challenged TPVs at either the stage of its introduction or of its subsequent tightening.

There are other damaged men on TPVs living in Australia who lost their entire families on SIEVX. ( eg Mohammed Alghazzi in Perth, Ali Mehdi Sobie and Haidar al-Zoohairi in Sydney and Hazam Al Rowaimi, last heard of heading for Perth) These men - as much SIEVX victims as those who are living with survivors in Australia - seem especially vulnerable to early removal as their TPVs expire. We don't know how many there may be.

Isn't it time for Mr Rudddock to treat these tragic SIEVX survivor families with humanity, by giving them all permanent residence as a special humanitarian decision within his discretionary powers, and end their agony? There are few enough of them, and the tragedy of SIEVX is - hopefully - unlikely ever now to be repeated. It would certainly surprise us, but we would genuinely welcome such a generous and altruistic act on the part of the Minister.


A letter-writing campaign has been organised by hopecaravan.com to help the SIEVX survivor families in their visa situation. Or you might want to send your own individual letters by fax or post to Mr Ruddock. The more letters the better: http://www.hopecaravan.com/ecampaign/sievx.asp

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